LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Republican Mitt Romney, seeking to refocus his presidential campaign on the economy after days of distraction, is promoting energy proposals aimed at creating more than 3 million new jobs and opening up more areas for drilling off the coast of two politically critical states, Virginia and North Carolina.
Romney's pivot to energy, a key component of his jobs agenda, comes as the national debate has turned away from the GOP candidate's jobs message and toward issues like rape, abortion, welfare and Medicare 2½ months before Election Day.
President Barack Obama's campaign also began a new push on the economy Thursday with a television advertisement featuring former President Bill Clinton. In the ad, Clinton speaks directly to the camera and says voters face a "clear choice" over which candidate will return the nation to full employment.
"We need to keep going with his plan," Clinton says of Obama in the ad, which will run in eight battleground states.
The former president also draws a connection between Obama's policies for strengthening the middle class and the nation's economic prosperity during his time in office, when the U.S. economy was thriving. Obama's campaign has been seeking to use Clinton as a reminder to voters that the economy was strong the last time a Democrat held the White House.
Romney will travel from Arkansas to New Mexico on Thursday to discuss what aides cast as a comprehensive energy plan that would result in more than $1 trillion in revenue for federal, state and local governments, plus millions of jobs.
The most significant aspects of Romney's plans hinge on opening up more areas for offshore oil drilling, including in the mid-Atlantic, where it is currently banned. Romney also wants to give states the power to establish all forms of energy production on federal lands, a significant shift in current policy that could face strong opposition in Congress.
In an effort to appease environmentalists, Romney says he would prevent energy production on federal lands that are designated as off-limits.
Romney's plan focuses heavily on boosting domestic oil production, including approving the Keystone XL pipeline that would run from Canada to U.S. refineries in Texas.
The presumptive GOP nominee has significant ties to big oil and raised at least $7 million from industry executives this week during fundraisers in Texas.
Romney's campaign says his strategy would achieve energy independence by 2020.
Locked in a tight election campaign with President Barack Obama, Romney is seeking to regain his economic focus after a week dominated by comments made by Missouri Republican Rep. Todd Akin, who is running for Senate. Akin has been rebuked by top Republicans, including Romney, for saying a woman's body is able to avoid pregnancy during what he called a "legitimate rape."
Romney called for Akin to drop out of the Senate race, but the congressman so far has refused.
Obama, seeking to boost his support among women, told donors Wednesday that Akin "somehow missed science class" and was representative of Republicans who want to "go backwards instead of forwards and fight fights that we thought were settled 20 or 30 years ago."
On other issues, Romney's shift away from his core economic message has been of his own campaign's making.
Earlier this month, Romney's team starting criticizing Obama on welfare reform, an issue that had barely registered in the campaign before the Republican ticket raised it. While Romney aides insist the issue is helping them gain ground with middle-class voters, independent fact-checkers have said Romney's charges that Obama ended a welfare work requirement are false.
Romney also started aggressively tackling Medicare after picking Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan as his running mate. A cornerstone of Ryan's budget proposals is an overhaul of Medicare, and Romney aides said he had to tackle the issue directly before Obama and Democrats tried to define Ryan's position for voters.
Campaigning Wednesday in Iowa and Arkansas, Romney never mentioned Medicare, welfare or Akin's comments.
He did preview his energy speech, promising donors at a fundraiser in Arkansas that "North America will be energy-independent by the last year of my second term."
Romney's energy pledges revived a long-elusive goal of reducing America's dependence on foreign supplies.
Nearly every U.S. president, including Obama, has made similar vows. Richard Nixon made the case for energy independence in 1973 after Arab oil producers cut off supplies in response to U.S. support of Israel in the Mideast war.
Obama has called for a one-third reduction in U.S. oil imports by 2025. The president's proposal for boosting domestic oil production relies in part on offering incentives to companies that hold leases for offshore and onshore drilling to speed up recovery; increasing the use of biofuels and natural gas; and making vehicles more energy-efficient.
Obama's campaign released a statement from former Energy Secretary Federico Pena, who served under President Bill Clinton, questioning how Romney planned to achieve his "lofty energy goals" and backing Obama as a champion of "an all-of-the-above approach to energy that responsibly develops America's great natural resources."
The Obama campaign also announced Thursday that it will begin accepting small donations via text message. Starting this week, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile and U.S. Cellular customers will be able to donate up to $50 per billing cycle; other carriers are expected to approve the service soon.