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Speech lays groundwork for campaign His GOP foes on the defensive, the president used his national stage to make a broad appeal.

The economy continues to struggle and Americans are largely pessimistic, but dueling events Tuesday showed why in politics it's good to be the incumbent.

President Obama harnessed one of the grand symbols of his office -- a prime-time State of the Union address -- to present himself as a champion for middle-class families struggling to get by.

In Florida, the escalating battle for the right to challenge Obama threatened to further bloody the leading contenders, with Mitt Romney on the defensive over the Tuesday release of his 2010 tax returns and Newt Gingrich trying to fend off questions about his consulting work for mortgage giant Freddie Mac.

The day brought a reminder that, for all of Obama's many political challenges and relatively low approval ratings, the White House has some reason for optimism.

The president's address Tuesday served far more as a road map for how Obama intends to capitalize on his built-in advantages than a governing blueprint for the next year.

Thanks to a gift of timing, Obama was able to draw a stark contrast with Romney.

That contrast comes as Obama highlights his quest for the "Buffett rule," named for Warren E. Buffett, the billionaire investor who has criticized a tax system that allows him and other investors to pay a lower rate than their staffs. The rule would require people making more than $1 million a year to pay at least the same tax rates as middle-class Americans, which can be closer to 30 percent.

Buffett's secretary was sitting in the gallery, but Americans learned Tuesday that Romney, too, stands as a symbol of what the White House will portray as a major inequity. In 2010, he paid an effective rate of 13.9 percent on $21.7 million in income, most of it from investments.

The president's language Tuesday night on housing -- a proposal to let responsible homeowners who are current on their payments refinance for lower interest rates -- could foreshadow a line of attack against Gingrich and his Freddie Mac connections.

Adding to the notion that the State of the Union address was, in effect, a campaign kickoff, Obama departs this morning on a three-day swing to five competitive states -- Iowa, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Michigan -- where he will no doubt turn up the heat on Republicans.

The timing of the address, coupled with Romney's tax release, fits neatly into the Democrats' effort to portray Romney as an out-of-touch corporate raider who seeks to shield Wall Street executives and other high-rollers from paying their share.

And it threatens to further weaken Romney's argument to GOP primary voters that he would be the strongest general-election opponent for Obama.

That argument, after all, rested largely on polling data showing the former Massachusetts governor outpacing the president among crucial independent voters.

Even more telling, as Romney has spent much of the past two weeks defending his record at Bain Capital and battling over whether to release his tax records, he has lost ground among whites with incomes under $50,000 a year, a key target group that has long been skeptical of Obama and viewed as critical in battleground states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Democrats see Obama's speech as a pivotal opportunity to make inroads. The timing, following Romney's stinging loss to Gingrich in Saturday's South Carolina primary, makes the scene that much sweeter for the White House.

"When you own this economy, that's a challenge," conceded Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg. "But to get the gift of timing, that Obama can speak to the country while Romney is releasing his tax returns at an effective rate below 15 percent, is an amazing moment."

Whether Obama's good fortunes continue depends on many factors out of his control, most notably the economy.

And while Democrats see hope in the power of incumbency, Republicans have been laying plans to undercut that power, amassing a database of Obama's past statements to use against him in local and national advertising. One ad released Tuesday by the Republican National Committee declared the state of the union to be "not better off," a reference to an interview in which Obama conceded that many Americans were not doing better than they were four years ago.

"On the one hand, he's got Air Force One, the Secret Service and a powerful entourage, and all that augers well for him," said Al Cardenas, a former Florida GOP chairman who now heads the American Conservative Union. "But he's also got 3 1/2 years of baggage, and we think that's pretty heavy."