- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 22, 2012

NEW YORK — The core of his presidential candidacy under attack, Mitt Romney has yet to shape a playbook to defend a quarter-century in the business world that created great riches for himself and great hardship, at times, for some American workers.

Mr. Romney and his aides have struggled to respond consistently to intensifying criticism about his tenure at Bain Capital and how it would be reflected in his presidency. The lack of a cohesive message stems, in part, from Mr. Romney’s fundamental belief that any debate that puts the economy front and center is a win for Republicans. Public polling shows most Americans are not satisfied with the pace of the recovery under Mr. Obama’s watch.

The election, Romney aides say, will be a referendum on Mr. Obama’s economic leadership far more than a question of Mr. Romney’s business career, regardless of how much Democrats highlight that issue.

So far, Romney aides have let Democrats — led by President Obama — do most of the talking.

Mr. Obama sharply attacked Mr. Romney’s business career Monday, offering his most expansive comments to date about how Mr. Romney’s role as founder of the Boston-based private equity firm doesn’t necessarily translate to the White House.

“If your main argument for how to grow the economy is ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you’re missing what this job is about,” Mr. Obama said during a news conference at an international summit in Chicago. “It doesn’t mean you weren’t good at private equity, but that’s not what my job is as president. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. My job is to make sure that the country is growing not just now, but 10 years from now.”

Mr. Romney did not respond to the broadside. Instead, his campaign issued a written statement accusing Mr. Obama was once again attacking the free enterprise system.

“What this election is about is the 23 million Americans who are still struggling to find work and the millions who have lost their homes and have fallen into poverty,” he said. “President Obama refuses to accept moral responsibility for his failed policies. My campaign is offering a positive agenda to help America get back to work.”

The Romney campaign has offered several defenses since Mr. Obama’s re-election team launched an assault against Bain: It’s a simple distraction, an affront to free markets, an attempt to divide the nation, a misreading of the firm’s success. The Romney campaign released a Web video last week featuring workers from an Indiana company that benefited from Bain’s involvement, though Mr. Romney himself has generally avoided the issue.

In a rare recent interview on Bain, Mr. Romney told a conservative radio host last week that the closure of a Florida factory under Bain’s control was not his problem. “The steel factory closed down two years after I left Bain Capital. I was no longer there. So that’s hardly something which is on my watch,” he said.

Mr. Obama is running television ads across five swing states featuring a former worker who likens the firm Mr. Romney founded to a vampire. The president’s re-election campaign has also released Web videos and hosted multiple conference calls with employees from companies that suffered under Bain’s leadership.

Romney senior aide Stuart Stevens described the television ad as “performance art gibberish.”

“Shouting louder and getting more angry is not very persuasive,” Mr. Stevens said in response to the line of attack. “The idea that people are walking around with less of a paycheck or higher gas prices because of something Bain Capital did 20 years ago is absurd.”

Bain offered this statement Monday responding to Democratic criticism: “Despite political attacks that emphasize the few companies that have struggled, the facts are that during Bain Capital’s ownership, revenues grew in 80 percent of the more than 350 companies in which we have invested.”

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