Standing outside the shuttered California headquarters of Solyndra on Thursday, Mitt Romney said President Obama must answer to voters for the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars he gambled on the politically connected solar technology company, which went belly-up in 2011.
Across the country in Boston, Mr. Obama’s top campaign strategist charged that Mr. Romney, the Republicans’ presumptive presidential nominee, failed to help a struggling economy in Massachusetts when he served one term as governor from 2003 to 2007.
In an election that is being billed as a referendum on Mr. Obama’s handling of the economy and federal spending, Mr. Romney and congressional Republicans have accused Mr. Obama of being more interested in using taxpayer money to reward his allies and push his ideology — even as Democrats have argued that Mr. Romney’s job-creating credentials fall short of the smart businessman’s image he is trying to portray.
“If the business had done spectacularly well, the shareholders — his friends — would have done very, very well, but the taxpayers would have just gotten their money back,” Mr. Romney said. “On the other hand, of course, if the business failed, as it did, it’s the taxpayers that get stuck with losing a half a billion dollars. So it’s heads and his cronies win, and tails and the taxpayers lose.”
With deep ties to the White House, Solyndra was awarded $535 million in government-backed loan guarantees, even as some staffers in the administration warned that it was a worrisome gamble and cautioned the president and his advisers against the plan.
Mr. Obama toured the solar panel facility in 2010, holding it up as one of the success stories to come out of the $831 billion in federal stimulus spending. At the event, he called companies like Solyndra “the true engine of economic growth.”
“Well, you can see that it’s a symbol of something very different today. It’s a symbol not of success, but of failure,” Mr. Romney said Thursday, arguing that the way the administration handed out the federal grants sent the wrong message to companies “that the best way to get ahead is not with the best ideas and the best technology and the best people and the best marketing, but instead with the best lobbyists.”
“That is not the nature of how America works,” he said.
David M. Axelrod, Mr. Obama’s top strategist, looked to deliver a different message in Massachusetts, where he opened his remarks, just steps away from the Statehouse that Mr. Romney used to occupy, by saying, “It is great to be in Massachusetts — Obama country.”
He painted the Republican as a political huckster, saying that Mr. Romney is once again peddling the false narrative that his experience as a “corporate buyout specialist” has given him special insight into how to jump-start the economy and get Americans back to work.
“After selling himself to Massachusetts as an economic savior, the Massachusetts record was alarmingly weak,” he said. “As you’ve heard, under Gov. Romney, the state was 47th in job creation — fourth from the bottom.”
Manufacturing jobs, he said, vanished at twice the national rate, household income fell, the size of the state government grew and Mr. Romney raised more fees than any other governor in the country — including for marriage licenses and home sales.
He also held up a 2007 study from Northeastern University that he said showed that on key labor market measures, the state often ranked near or at the bottom when compared with other states.
“It wasn’t happenstance that Massachusetts stumbled under Gov. Romney,” Mr. Axelrod said. “He brought the orientation of a financial engineer, whose career has not been about generating jobs, it has been about generating short-term profit. Not about generating long-term growth, or building for the future, but about taking what he can when he can.”
The news conference, though, was largely overshadowed by a boisterous group of Romney supporters who crashed the event after word of it leaked overnight.
While Mr. Axelrod and local Democratic leaders spoke, the pro-Romney forces booed and taunted them with noisemakers and chants, including “Where are the jobs?” and, perhaps fittingly, “Solyndra, Solyndra.”
Clearly rattled, Mr. Axelrod tried to silence them early on, but to no avail.
“You can shout down speakers, my friends, but it is hard to Etch-a-Sketch the truth away,” he said.
The punch-counterpunch came less than 24 hours after Mr. Obama phoned Mr. Romney to congratulate him on clinching the Republican nomination Tuesday, following his strong showing in the Texas primary.
Five months from Election Day, polls show the race is basically a dead heat, with Mr. Obama running a couple of points ahead of Mr. Romney in the latest Realclearpolitics.com average of polls.
Most of the same polls, though, also show that while Mr. Obama is the more likable of two candidates, voters tend to side with Mr. Romney when they are asked whom they trust more to strengthen the economy.