CHICAGO — As President Obama pushes Mitt Romney to release more of his tax returns, a television commercial from his campaign bluntly says, ‘‘Makes you wonder if some years he’s paid any taxes at all.’’ In another spot, Obama’s campaign stops short of calling the Republican a tax cheat, but stirs suspicion by declaring, ‘‘Romney’s used every trick in the book.’’
With 100 days remaining before Election Day, there is an air of apprehension around the Obama campaign headquarters here. Yet there are few regrets about the tone of the race, only a conviction that the circumstances — a frail economy, intense Republican opposition, and a well-financed negative campaign from Romney and his allies — left Obama no option but to fight back even if it sullies his image as a candidate of hope and change.
‘‘Is it a different kind of race than 2008? Of course,’’ said David Axelrod, a senior campaign strategist. ‘‘If we were passive in the face of this onslaught we are facing, our folks would be unhappy. There are few on our side who are counseling us to sit idly by.’’
Romney and his allies are giving as good as they get, lacerating Obama as hapless in promoting job creation, feckless with allies like Israel, and determined to expand government until the United States resembles Sweden.
As the campaigns prepare for the next phase of the race, the two sides are taking stock of what they have achieved in their first sustained engagement, a relentlessly negative effort over the last two months to define the other. The exchanges have been so fierce that hardly a positive ad has been broadcast in July.
But both the opportunities and the risks in the definition wars are greater for Obama. Romney is less well known to the public, giving Democrats a chance to shape perceptions of him just as more voters are starting to tune in to the race.
The president’s prospects for reelection now rest in part on one of the biggest gambles of his career: that the benefits of trying to eviscerate Romney outweigh the costs to his own image and reputation.
With a political climate ripe for unseating an incumbent, the president’s campaign team signaled long ago that it had no intention of trying to replicate the 2008 race and made it clear last year that if Romney won the Republican nomination, they would rush to aggressively define him. Obama, whose competitive and confident streaks seem to have been rekindled by the strong challenge from Romney, has shown no inclination to hold back in trying to portray his rival as a secretive Bush-era throwback whose wealth puts him out of touch with the middle class.
The ratio of negative ads, which are defined as those in which a campaign mentions its rival by name, tells the story. Since April, after Romney became the presumptive nominee, Obama broadcast negative commercials 118,775 times compared with 56,128 times for positive commercials.
In the same time period, Romney ran negative spots 51,973 times and positive spots 11,921, according to an analysis from Kantar Media, which tracks political advertising. This does not include the Republican super PAC ads that are almost entirely attacks on the president.