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On Saturday President Obama and the first lady will hold their first official campaign rallies of the season at stops in Columbus, Ohio, and Richmond, Va. Although the president has spoken at re-election fundraisers for several months now, this weekend's rallies at Ohio State University and Virginia Commonwealth University mark his first non-fundraising events of the campaign season.

The decision to kick things off in the battleground states is no accident, representing two crucial areas in the 2012 challenge. According to a recent Washington Post poll, in Virginia Obama is leading Romney with registered voters by 54 percent to 44 percent. As the Post reports:

The Democratic president has a key advantage in his bid for re­election: The coalition of Virginians that helped propel him to victory in 2008 -- young voters, suburban Washingtonians, women and African Americans -- is largely intact. Yet the survey shows that voters in the state are split on Obama's signature health-care reform law and that they remain deeply pessimistic about the way things are going in the country, creating a potential opening for Romney.

In Ohio, however, Obama and Romney are in a virtual tie. A new Quinnipiac University poll shows the president with 44 percent of the vote, and Romney with 42. It's a particularly dicey showing for the president, who was ahead in the state by 6 points just a month ago. It's no surprise, then, that he's zeroing in for the campaign.

Of course, unofficially the president has been focusing on these and other swing states for months. He was just in Virginia on Friday afternoon, speaking to Arlington high school seniors about his push for Congress to prevent student-loan interest rates from doubling in July. Last month he also visited colleges in Ohio, North Carolina, Iowa and Colorado to speak on the same issue, which has grown into a campaign-shaping theme.

But with Saturday's rallies in place, the campaign has made it official. As Campaign Manager Jim Messina said to reporters in a Wednesday conference call, "Welcome to the general election."

Cynthia Gordy is The Root's senior political correspondent.