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Obama seizes lead in race to define Romney

CAMPAIGN 2012: NEWS ANALYSIS

Obama ads trashing Romney's work at Bain Capital and his tax record undermine the image the Republican wants voters to see.

August 13, 2012|By Michael Finnegan, Los Angeles Times
  • Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters at a rally at the NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, N.C.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets supporters at a… (Jason E. Miczek, Associated…)

Hours after revealing his choice of Rep. Paul D. Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney slammed President Obama for running his reelection campaign "down in the dirt." The race, he said, could now focus on serious issues.

By selecting the Wisconsin congressman, who leads the Republican Party's drive for tax cuts for all — including the wealthiest — and dramatic spending reductions, Romney ensured a robust debate on sharply contrasting visions for America's future.

But by intensifying the brawl over taxes, Romney also gave Obama an opening to step up his attacks on Romney's record at the investment firm that made him wealthy and his placement of millions of dollars in tax havens overseas.

In ads airing heavily in states most likely to decide the election, the president is already weaving those attacks into a larger case against Romney on the economy — and, more important, against the Republican fiscal agenda championed by none other than Ryan.

PHOTOS: Romney selects Paul Ryan

"You work hard, stretch every penny," an announcer says in a new Obama ad about Romney. "But chances are you pay a higher tax rate than him. Mitt Romney made $20 million in 2010, but paid only 14% in taxes — probably less than you." The ad says Romney wants to "give millionaires another tax break and raise taxes on middle-class families," which Romney denies. "He pays less, you pay more," the ad says.

The potency of Obama's attacks is best measured by Romney's response. He recently hired corporate crisis PR specialist Michele Davis to mount an aggressive defense. He told NBC that he wanted a pact with Obama to stop attack ads on such subjects as "business or family or taxes." And Romney told Fox News that his "biggest challenge is making sure that my message is able to break through all the clutter that comes from the Obama team."

Romney's selection of Ryan is by far the candidate's most important move to address that challenge, even if its potential effectiveness is open to debate. Obama's campaign has pounced on Ryan's candidacy to amplify its message that the Republican's proposals favor wealthy taxpayers like Romney over the middle class.

On ABC's"This Week"on Sunday, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod called Ryan a right-wing ideologue who "constructed a budget that, like Romney, would lavish trillions of dollars of tax cuts, most of them on the wealthy."

Strategists in both parties say Romney made a serious error in neglecting to respond quickly to Obama ads trashing his record as the leader of Bain Capital, the Boston investment firm that he founded. The millions of dollars spent by presidential candidates on TV advertising in battleground states can be hugely influential with voters, and Romney gave Obama a three-month head start in defining him.

"In those voters' minds, they're starting to fill in — choosing colors from the palette — who Romney is, and the Romney campaign didn't offer them any colors to choose from," said John Weaver, who was a top advisor to Republican John McCain, the 2008 nominee. "I don't think it's been wise to wait this long to deal with it."

Over the last two weeks, Romney has started running spots sketching his own biography.

One new Romney ad says he started a business, ran the 2002 Winter Olympics and slashed spending as governor of Massachusetts. Another tells viewers that Romney "shares your values" and sided with the Roman Catholic Church in a controversy over contraception. Both spots show Romney with his wife, Ann.

Beyond the advertising, the Republican National Convention in Florida will soon give Romney a prime-time forum to tell the story of who he is.

A top advisor said the initial omission of Romney's personal story was just a matter of timing.

"We are very methodically telling people what a Romney presidency would be like, and who Mitt Romney is," said Stuart Stevens, Romney's chief strategist. "It will be a balance of the policy and the personal, the emotional and the fact-driven."

John F. Kerry, President George W. Bush's Democratic challenger, faced a similar circumstance in 2004, with early-summer ads undercutting his military credentials in the weeks leading up to his nominating convention.

Bob Shrum, who was Kerry's top campaign advisor, said Romney's failure to start telling his life story while Obama's team was assailing his business record would make it harder to accomplish now.

" 'Successful businessman' will convey something different than it would have conveyed two or three months ago," Shrum said. "People are seeing it against the backdrop of all of the other information they have absorbed."

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