Even as Mitt Romney was readying one of his strongest direct attacks yet on President Obama on Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Mr. Obama’s campaign pre-empted him with its own attack ad in the state, a turn of events emblematic of the Republican challenger’s struggle to impose his own narrative to drive — and win — what is now a 24-hour news cycle.
Mr. Romney weathered similar attacks about his tenure at Bain Capital and his business dealings as a private-equity capitalist during the Republican primary season, but strategists say his team failed to fully prepare for the onslaught of the hard-knocks Obama team.
“If Romney’s tenure at Bain is indeed his primary rationale to be president of the United States, then his team needs to pick up, dust off and speak straight,” said Tracy Sefl, a longtime Democratic strategist who served as an adviser to Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. “They’re lucky that many voters have yet to tune in, but the clock is ticking.”
Kyle Kondik, an analyst at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, said that though there’s a long way to go, Mr. Obama and his aides are holding the early lead in the messaging battle.
“In terms of the campaign infrastructure, they took it from 2008 and built it for 2012, and so it’s not surprising that this early in the campaign they have this sort of rapid response,” he said. “To the extent that the incumbent can make it about the challenger, by that measure I think the Obama folks are doing well, but it may not matter all that much in the end.”
But the president’s current successes in the media wars shows how quickly the momentum can shift in high-stakes political campaigns. It was just a month ago that many Democrats were bemoaning the Obama team’s lack of focus and muddled ad strategy, as top Democrats openly questioned the strategy of attacking Bain and the private-equity industry.
Mr. Romney has clearly tried to go on the offensive the past two days, leveling charges directly at the president for purportedly practicing “crony capitalism” and for denigrating small businesses. The former Massachusetts governor on Tuesday seized on the president’s recent comment on the campaign trail that “if you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”
“To say something like that is not just foolishness,” Mr. Romney said at the campaign stop in Pennsylvania. “It’s insulting to every entrepreneur, every innovator, in America. I’ve got to be honest, I don’t think anyone could have said what he said who had actually started a business or been in a business. And my own view is that what the president said was both startling and revealing. I find it extraordinary that a philosophy of that nature would be spoken by a president of the United States.”
But the Obama campaign, as it has done repeatedly since Mr. Romney emerged as the probable GOP nominee this spring, offered a “pre-buttal” to the appearance with an ad that went as far as suggesting that Mr. Romney may not have paid any of his taxes in some years because of his refusal to make public more of his personal financial records. Mr. Romney has released his 2010 tax records and an estimate for 2011, showing that he paid an effective tax rate of about 14 percent in 2010.
Former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu said two years’ worth was enough and that if Mr. Romney released the paperwork the Obama campaign wants, it would be “about 6 feet of returns in which they could find whatever nit they want to use as a distraction.”
“By definition, in running that ad, the Obama campaign has clearly demonstrated that they are clearly and unequivocally a bunch of liars,” he said.
Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith countered that the Romney campaign “has gone off the deep end in an attempt to once again change the story line away from his Bain tenure and investments in foreign tax havens and offshore accounts.”
“As President Obama said the other day, those who start businesses succeed because of their individual initiative — their drive, hard work and creativity,” she said. “But there are critical actions we must take to support businesses and encourage new ones — that means we need the best infrastructure, a good education system and affordable, domestic sources of clean energy.
Long before the Obama campaign set its sights on Mr. Romney’s business dealings and tenure at Bain Capital, other GOP presidential hopefuls were the ones battering him over his finances and time at Bain Capital.”
At the outset of the Republican primaries in January, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry repeatedly blasted Mr. Romney over reports that Bain laid off employees and profited from failed companies. Mr. Perry went as far as calling the former Massachusetts governor a “vulture capitalist.”
Mr. Romney was able to withstand the attacks and outlast his opponents owing in part to his significant fundraising edge and his rivals’ own political missteps. He might not be so fortunate against the Obama campaign, which is likely to keep hammering the Bain issue and could dredge up some of the old GOP primary sound bites for added effect.
Ms. Sefl said what voters truly care about is putting Americans back to work, reviving the country’s manufacturing sector and improving the U.S. standing in the world — and doing it all with dignity.
“For now, the rest is just noise — literally, in the case of Mitt Romney’s off-key patriotic warbling — and the sugar highs of stories that haven’t affected voters’ concerns,” she said in an email.
She did add, however, that if there was ever a situation where a campaign needed to reclaim a narrative, it’s now for the Republican nominee.
Mixed messaging did sting the Romney campaign recently on Mr. Obama’s health care overhaul — his signature domestic achievement. Romney senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom initially agreed with the White House’s position in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on the law, calling the fine for people who choose not to purchase insurance a penalty, not a tax. Mr. Romney later clarified that he thinks the fine is, indeed, a tax.
“When one of your advisers goes on TV and calls Obamacare a penalty and not a tax, that doesn’t really energize the base,” said one GOP operative in the battleground state of Virginia.
• David Hill contributed to this report.