By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's re-election campaign announced on Wednesday the Democrat and his wife, Michelle, will hold their first campaign rallies of the 2012 campaign season next week, marking a clear beginning of the general election against presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
The rallies will be held on May 5 in Ohio and Virginia, two battleground states that are important to Obama's strategy of retaining the White House after the November 6 election.
"Welcome to the general election," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina told a conference call with reporters.
"The Republicans have settled on their candidate - or should I say, settled for their candidate," he said, referring to Romney's tough primary race.
Obama's campaign launched last year and the president has been holding fundraisers and official events with electoral undercurrents for months, but he has yet to hold the large rallies with thousands of people that characterized his successful 2008 journey to the presidency.
Republicans have said Obama has used taxpayer dollars to fund his campaign by holding White House events based on themes that will help define the election. Obama's campaign and the White House reject those charges.
Messina said Obama's transition to holding more official campaign events would be gradual.
"Obviously the president has a busy day job, and we'll continue to layer in campaign events where we think it's appropriate," Messina said. "This is obviously the start of that process."
The announcement was notable for a few reasons.
One: the inclusion of Michelle Obama. The first lady has high approval ratings, and having her with the president on this kind of a campaign outing is designed to help rub off some of that popularity on her husband.
Two: the locations of the rallies. The campaign's selection of Ohio and Virginia signal that it sees those states as both crucial and vulnerable in the race against Romney.
ROMNEY REPLIES, PORTMAN IN FOCUS
Messina said Obama was starting his official campaigning later than White House predecessors George W. Bush, a Republican, and Bill Clinton, a Democrat.
Romney's campaign was ready with reactions to Obama's planned rallies.
"In less than two weeks, President Obama will bring his failed policies and broken promises to Virginia," said Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell in a statement released by the campaign.
"His policies have taken our country in the wrong direction, and Virginia and the rest of the nation can't afford four more years of the same."
Ohio Republican Senator Rob Portman had a similar comment for his state.
"After three and a half years, it is clear that President Obama does not have a plan to get spending under control or our economy back on track," Portman said in a statement. "In less than two weeks, President Obama will be in Columbus, where he will argue for four more years of the same failed policies that have produced record unemployment and skyrocketing gas prices."
David Axelrod, Obama's senior campaign strategist, provided a foreshadowing of the kind of attacks the Obama team would use if Romney chooses Portman, a former budget director in the George W. Bush administration, as his running mate.
"Senator Portman was one of the architects ... of the last administration's economic policies, and it's just one more sign - if he does that - that he wants to go back to those policies," Axelrod said.
Putting Portman on the ticket with Romney would likely give the former Massachusetts governor a boost in Ohio, a state which could determine the outcome of the presidential election.
(Editing by Eric Beech)