“Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate… (Mary Altaffer, Associated…)
CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — Mitt Romney delivered his fieriest denunciation yet of President Obama in front of the stately sandstone courthouse here the other day, arguing that Obama has besmirched the office of the presidency, divided Americans and taken modern-day campaigning to a new low.
"Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago, and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America," Romney said on Tuesday.
The speech received a lot of attention as a new and forceful turn for the presumptive GOP nominee, but it was actually the culmination of weeks of transformation in Romney's tone toward his rival. It is a shift that has occurred because of strategic imperatives, Romney's altered view of Obama and anger at how he believes the president and his allies have waged their campaign.
During the primaries, Romney would routinely preface his criticism of the president's handling of the economy by saying that Obama was a "nice guy" or a "nice fellow" who was "just in over his head" and had "no idea about how the private economy works," a message delivered with seeming sorrow and resignation rather than hot anger.
The phrasing sometimes caused Republicans in the audience to groan, but the strategy made sense. Romney was not yet directly challenging the Democrat, and as he sought his party's nomination, he needed to portray himself as both the most presidential and as the GOP's best chance to defeat Obama.
"Part of Romney's message to primary voters was that he was the adult in the room. He worked very hard to set himself apart from the rest of the field, not just ideologically but temperamentally," said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC and a former GOP political operative. "He had to strike a balance between being very conservative on the issues, but much more measured in terms of his tone."
But once he secured the nomination and the two campaign teams directly confronted one another, Romney began sharpening his rhetoric. Instead of regretting Obama's ignorance, he began arguing that the president's worldview was leading the nation on a "foreign" path, and that the president wanted Americans to be ashamed of their achievements. He accused the president of "crony capitalism" and disclosing national secrets. His speeches became markedly more confrontational.
At a mid-July rally in Bowling Green, Ohio, Romney asked business owners in the audience to stand and raise their hands if they had built their own business. It was a reference to an Obama line that business owners had needed help from government, in the form of roads and teachers.
"Take that, Mr. President!" Romney exclaimed, surveying the sea of raised arms.
Political observers and strategists say Romney is probably trying to achieve several goals. Independent and undecided voters can be turned off by negativity, but Romney's forceful turn will energize the GOP base. And by arguing that Obama is no longer 2008's candidate of hope and change, Romney is trying to cut into the president's likability. (Polls show voters have more favorable views of Obama than Romney, and that difference has helped Obama offset concerns about the economy.) Romney may also be belatedly reacting to a summer full of attacks on his business record and tax history that have taken hold with some voters.
"When a candidate sharpens their rhetoric, first of all, it's important to recognize it's never accidental. These things don't happen organically," said Adam Mendelsohn, a GOP strategist and advisor to former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "Most of the time in a campaign, when it's noticeable that the candidate's rhetoric becomes sharper or more direct, what it tells you is that there's a realization in the campaign that they have to be more aggressive in how they're framing the other candidate — that the contrast isn't stark enough."
Romney said in an interview in early August that penetrating the attacks by Democrats on his record was his greatest task.
"My biggest challenge is making sure that my message is able to break through all the clutter that comes from the Obama team," Romney said on Fox News. "It's like throwing chaff out of an aircraft to keep a rocket from coming."
The Obama campaign accused Romney of hypocrisy, especially given his use of negative campaigning to beat down his primary rivals.
"Gov. Romney over the past year has run an almost entirely negative campaign where he tears down his opponents and then tells them to stop whining," said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt. "He said this weekend he wanted the remainder of the campaign to focus on the big choice and the big differences between the economic visions between the two tickets.... He simply doesn't have the standing to make that argument after a year of running an almost entirely negative and substance-free campaign."
But the Romney campaign places blame for the sharper attacks on Obama and his campaign.