President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney are pitching to college students and working-class voters in Ohio less than a week before early voting kicks off in this critical Midwestern state.

Fresh off a high-stakes address before world leaders at the United Nations, Obama is set to address rallies Wednesday at two state universities, hoping to generate the kind of enthusiasm among young voters that helped fuel his victory four years ago. Romney plans three stops in major metropolitan areas of the state as part of a bus tour geared toward drawing a contrast with Obama on middle-class economic issues.

Both candidates recognize how critical Ohio’s 18 electoral votes will be this fall. Losing here would dramatically narrow Romney’s paths to the 270 electoral college votes required to win the White House — and no Republican has ever lost Ohio and won the presidency.

The state has become a main focal point for the two candidates on the airwaves, with even more TV ads airing here than in expansive Florida. And with early voting set to begin in Ohio on Oct. 2, time is running out for Romney and Obama to make their cases to maximum effect.

The candidates exchanged barbs Tuesday over trade policies with China, an implicit struggle for votes from working-class voters whose livelihoods have been affected by competition from Chinese manufacturers.

“When people cheat, that kills jobs,” Romney said at a rally Tuesday afternoon in Vandalia, near Dayton. “China has cheated. I will not allow that to continue.”

In a statement, Obama campaign spokeswoman Ben LaBolt criticized Romney’s own investments in Chinese companies. “How can we trust Mitt Romney to stand up to China when he profits from China breaking the rules?” he said in a statement.

Buoyed by signs of an improving economy, Obama has the edge in Ohio six weeks out from Election Day. The president has led Romney in a series of recent polls in the state, with a Washington Post poll on Tuesday showing Obama with a lead that was outside the poll’s margin of error. Even on handling of the economy, where Romney until recently has had an advantage, Obama now leads.

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