President Obama refused to accept responsibility Monday for the actions of campaign surrogates who suggested Republican Mitt Romney committed a felony and that he contributed to the death of a woman who succumbed to cancer.
"We point out sharp differences between the candidates, but we don't go out of bounds," Mr. Obama told reporters at the White House. "When you look at the campaign we're running, we are focused on the issues and the differences that matter to working families all across America."
In his first news conference in more than two months, the president tried to remain above the fray of a campaign that has turned increasingly ugly. He did so by ignoring the details of one of his campaign's attacks on Mr. Romney, and by claiming no connection to another one directed by his former deputy White House spokesman.
Asked by a reporter to disavow the actions of Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter, who suggested that Mr. Romney committed a felony when he ran the firm Bain Capital by filing incomplete documents with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mr. Obama replied, "Nobody accused Mr. Romney of being a felon."
But Ms. Cutter did tell reporters in July, "Either Mitt Romney, through his own words and his own signature, was misrepresenting his position at Bain [Capital] to the SEC, which is a felony," or he misrepresented his position to the public.
The president also was asked to condemn a TV ad produced by a pro-Obama super PAC, Priorities USA, that strongly implies Mr. Romney is responsible for the death of a woman whose husband lost his health insurance when Bain closed the steel plant where he worked. The man's wife was diagnosed with cancer five years after the plant closed.
"I don't think that Gov. Romney is somehow responsible for the death of the woman that was portrayed in that ad," Mr. Obama said. "But keep in mind, this is an ad that I didn't approve, I did not produce and, as far as I can tell, has barely run. I think it ran once."
Priorities USA was co-founded by Bill Burton, the president's former deputy press secretary. The steelworker featured in the ad also appeared in a commercial produced by the Obama campaign, and he participated in a news conference call organized by the Obama campaign.
The president's "see no evil, hear no evil" approach drew a rebuke from the Romney campaign.
"After spending weeks refusing to denounce his super PAC's scurrilous ad against Mitt Romney, President Obama once again failed to lead," said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams in a statement. "Worse yet, the president falsely alleged no one in his campaign had accused Mitt Romney of committing a crime. President Obama's failure to stand up to dishonest rhetoric and attacks demonstrates yet again he's diminished the office that he holds and his record is nothing more than business as usual in Washington."
Mr. Obama said it was worse for the Romney campaign to produce an ad accusing the administration of gutting work requirements in the 1996 welfare reform law, an ad Mr. Obama called "patently false."
In July, Mr. Obama moved to allow states to seek waivers from some welfare requirements. States must show that their plans would move at least 20 percent more people to work.
The Romney campaign's ad argued that the administration's move will result in people receiving checks for nothing, a claim that has since been removed from the ad.
Independent fact-checking organizations rated the Romney campaign's claim as false, but conservatives argue that waivers will lead to an end of the work requirement. Mr. Romney was among several Republican governors who signed a letter in 2005 asking for more flexibility, although he says he wanted to tighten the rules.
The president said of his Republican opponents, "They can run the campaign that they want, but the truth of the matter is you can't just make stuff up. That's one thing you learn as president of the United States. You get called into account."
And the president said it's important to point out the "stark" differences between himself and Mr. Romney, which is why he supports his campaign's decision to criticize the Republican for holding a Swiss bank account.
"That may be perfectly legal," Mr. Obama said. But he added that most Americans "would find that relevant information," especially with the government confronting "tough choices" about spending and taxes.
The president also called again on Mr. Romney to release more of his tax returns, saying a candidate's finances should be "an open book."
"I think people want to know that … everybody's been playing by the same rules, including people who are seeking the highest office in the land," Mr. Obama said.
Mr. Romney has released his tax returns for 2010, and an estimate of his 2011 taxes. He said he will produce his complete 2011 tax return later, but he has resisted releasing more, saying Democrats would just use the data for campaign attacks.
The Republican said last week that he reviewed about 10 years worth of tax returns, and he has never paid less than 13 percent in taxes. Some top Democrats have claimed Mr. Romney is hiding his tax records because he probably paid no taxes in some years.
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