barack_obama_041212_web.jpgPALM BEACH GARDENS —President Barack Obama says the choice facing voters in November will be as stark as in the milestone 1964 contest between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater — one that ended up with one of the biggest Democratic landslides in history.

The president made his comments Tuesday during a fundraising blitz in Florida and right before his general election foe was essentially decided. Republican Rick Santorum dropped out of the presidential contest, making it clear that Obama will likely face off against Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.

Obama used a daylong trip to Florida to call again for Congress to raise taxes on millionaires, a populist pitch on an issue that he hopes will help define the differences with presumptive nominee Romney.

“This election will probably have the biggest contrast that we've seen maybe since the Johnson-Goldwater election, maybe before that,” Obama told donors at the first of three campaign events in this battleground state. The events were expected to raise at least $1.7 million.

In his 1964 race against Goldwater, Johnson carried 44 of 50 states and won 61 percent of the popular vote, the largest share of any candidate since 1820.

Running on a record that included the Great Society, Johnson portrayed Goldwater as a dangerous extremist. He was aided by Goldwater's GOP convention speech in which the candidate proclaimed, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.''

Republicans say Obama's tax proposal is aimed at dividing Americans along class lines and gives him an excuse to raise more money for his re-election campaign.

“He can't run on his record so he is coming down here to raise money using taxpayers' funds to do so,” said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, R-Fla.

U.S. Rep. Allen West, R-Fla., issued a statement accusing Obama of a “divide and rule” tactics.

“President Obama's only hope for re-election seems to be that Americans will overlook his failed economic policies if he can successfully divide people along the lines of income and wealth,”  West said in his comment on the president’s visit.

 “Obama and Democrat  congressional candidates improve by demonizing people and turning the American people against each other.  Cynical and divisive political strategy does nothing to create jobs for the 14 million unemployed Americans, it does nothing to alleviate soaring gas prices that pinch family budgets and prevent small businesses from hiring, and it does nothing to increase opportunity for all Americans, regardless of skin color, gender, age or income,”  West said.

In a reception at a gated community in Palm Beach Gardens, Obama said Democrats would ensure the rich pay their fair share, while focusing on investments in education, science and research and caring for the most vulnerable.

By contrast, he said, Republicans would dismantle education and clean energy programs so they can give still more tax breaks to the rich.

Obama did not mention Romney by name but the economic fairness message was the theme of his day — and aimed squarely at the wealthy former Massachusetts governor.

Obama later outlined his support for the so-called Buffett rule during a speech at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, arguing that wealthy investors should not pay taxes at a lower rate than middle-class wage earners.

The push for the Buffett rule, named after billionaire investor Warren Buffett, came ahead of a Senate vote next week and as millions of Americans prepare to file their income tax returns. The plan has little chance of passing Congress but Senate Democrats say the issue underscores the need for economic fairness.

Obama capped his day at a large rally-style event in Hollywood that included a musical performance by singer John Legend and a fundraising dinner in nearby Golden Beach.

South Florida Times staff contributed to this report.

Photo: Barack Obama