Dogged by lingering questions about his business record, Mitt Romney shifted from defense to attack mode Monday, accusing President Obama of unfairly rewarding campaign donors. It was a more aggressive posture many Republicans have been wanting to see.
The Republican's camp unveiled a new ad and line of attack that argue Mr. Obama has practiced a perverted form of crony capitalism during his first 3½ years in office — to the detriment of the American middle class.
As one example, Romney senior adviser Ed Gillespie pointed to Fisker Automotive, which counts the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers as one of its major investors. Employees of the firm have contributed millions to mostly Democratic political candidates, including money to Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The company received a $529 million loan from the government in 2009 as part of a Department of Energy program to encourage companies to build energy-efficient cars, but much of the money went to the development of a $100,000 model named Karma. The remaining funds were frozen when efforts to get the car into showrooms were delayed.
"This is a tough time for the people of America," Mr. Romney said on "Fox & Friends." "But if you are a campaign contributor to Barack Obama, your business may stand to get billions of dollars or hundreds of millions of dollars in cash from the government. I think it's wrong. I think it stinks to high heaven, and I think the administration has to explain how it is they would consider giving money to campaign contributors' businesses."
Mr. Romney also directly called out Mr. Obama over his campaign's relentless attacks on Mr. Romney's time at the venture-capital firm Bain Capital. Mr. Romney has maintained that he left the company in early 1999 to help run the U.S. Olympics in Salt Lake City, but filings list him as a Bain executive as late as 2002.
"What does it say about a president whose record is so poor that all he can do in his campaign is attack me?" he asked. "Wouldn't it be interesting, Mr. President, if you spent some time looking at your record?"
The GOP attack came as both camps intensified their efforts to control the early narrative of the campaign. President Obama traveled to Ohio Monday to highlight a new line of attack against the former Massachusetts governor, touting a new "nonpartisan" report that Mr. Obama claimed showed Mr. Romney's economic plan would send hundreds of thousands of jobs overseas.
Responding to Mr. Romney's latest line of attack, Obama campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki said aboard Air Force One that Mr. Romney's record on transparency pales in comparison to Mr. Obama's and that he's simply trying to shift the conversation away from Bain.
"President Obama has set a bar of transparency that Mitt Romney has not met, cannot possibly meet even on his tippy toes," Ms. Psaki said. "We release far more than Mitt Romney has come close to."
Nevertheless, Republicans were pleased to see Mr. Romney finally playing offense rather than parrying attacks from the president's campaign about his business record, as he did last week, or leaving bomb-throwing to Super PACs.
"Today is something that I'd like to see more of, and a lot of people on the GOP side want [Mr. Romney] to take on Obama himself," said GOP strategist Noelle Nikpour. "People in the GOP are looking for him to come out swinging, rather than letting the Super PACs do the swinging for him. So he's doing what he needs to be doing. And he's doing it himself. Now it's Obama versus Mitt Romney and Romney versus Obama. Get used to this."
Former Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, an honorary chairman of Mr. Romney's campaign in Virginia, also agreed with the strategy — especially given that it's mid-July, when the slightest misstep or awkward moment from a campaign can end up dominating the news cycle.
"This is the summer doldrums, and you need to fill the space, because if you don't fill it, the other campaign will," said Mr. Davis, adding that he didn't expect to see the race really rev up until after both parties hold their respective conventions. "The fact this money went to a bunch of contributors — it's a good narrative for Romney. I think right now both sides are trying out different things to see how they play in the fall."
Virginia Attorney Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II said Mr. Romney's temperament may be a factor and described the candidate's change in attitude as not necessarily "tougher" per se, but smarter.
"I think Gov. Romney is by nature a nicer guy than you're used to seeing in politics," Mr. Cuccinelli said. "I think he's absolutely right to be riled up about — I'm riled up about this."
The Obama campaign, meanwhile, continued to press the Bain issue, arguing that a slew of interviews given by Mr. Romney and his campaign surrogates on Friday and over the weekend "raised more questions than it answered" on the issue of when exactly the former Massachusetts governor left the company.
"This week, Mitt Romney has the opportunity to provide a full accounting of his tenure at Bain Capital, the central premise of his campaign and the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not he was the job creator he claims to be," Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt wrote in a memo.
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