WASHINGTON - The strategy is vintage Ted Kennedy - attacking Mitt Romney on the very centerpiece of his campaign in an attempt to turn the former Bain Capital chief executive’s business credentials into a liability.
It worked flawlessly in 1994, when Kennedy unleashed an onslaught of ads tying Romney’s Bain years to rounds of layoffs and plant closings, ultimately sinking Romney’s Senate campaign.
President Obama’s reelection team, banking on the Kennedy playbook, unveiled its first ad Monday attacking Romney’s business record, using laid-off steel workers in Missouri to paint him as a callous “vampire’’ and “job destroyer’’ who is out of touch with the average working person.
The steel ad sent the Romney campaign scrambling Monday to unveil a Web video that presents Romney as an entrepreneur who helped nurture the American Dream by creating what is now the country’s fifth largest steel company.
The dueling ads highlight the battle between the president and the former Massachusetts governor to court middle-class voters, each appealing to concerns about jobs and upward mobility at a time of economic stagnation. Obama’s ad could further diminish Wall Street’s already waning support for him, analysts caution, but it holds the potential of boosting enthusiasm among independents.
“The Obama campaign is really putting on a full-court press to take over the conversation,’’ said John Carroll, a Boston University communications professor and former advertising consultant. “When Obama looks at the competitive situation now, what he’s trying to do is get off the defensive on the economy and essentially paint Romney as a dangerous kind of capitalist promoter and redefine Romney in a way that will take the heat off Obama for unemployment and the sputtering state of the economy.’’
The Obama campaign has paired its 2-minute ad - to begin running in the key battleground states of Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Virginia - with a 6-minute Web video featuring the story of GST Steel, a 105-year-old steel mill in Kansas City, Mo.
Bain purchased the mill in 1993, increased its debt, and closed it eight years later after Romney and his partners emerged with profits. As a result, the ad points out, 750 workers lost their jobs, health insurance, severance pay, even pensions.
Obama’s team simultaneously launched a website, RomneyEconomics.com, to highlight what it describes as Romney’s business focus on creating wealth, not jobs - a key message the president’s supporters hope will hamper Romney’s ability to promote his private sector experience as the reason he should be elected president.
“This line of attack by the president and the issues involved are potentially very bad for Romney,’’ said Tad Devine, a political media consultant and a mastermind of the 1994 Kennedy ads, who expects to see a sustained assault along the same theme. “Romney has asked voters to trust him with the economy because of his experience in business. Given where the country has been between 1994 and today, the ads are likely to be even more potent.’’
The Romney campaign pointed out that the bankruptcy and layoffs at GST Steel occurred after Romney left Bain in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Olympics. Romney has said he took “personal responsibility for making the investment’’ in GST Steel but not for managing the company.
Asked by a reporter whether it was fair to hold Romney responsible for the bankruptcy when he was no longer at the company, Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, responded: “He set this in motion. It was his structure that put this in place. He was still making profits.’’
Bain Capital responded to the Obama ad Monday with a statement saying that nearly half of all US steel companies went into bankruptcy at the time in the face of pressures on the industry.
When Bain acquired the company, it was a struggling manufacturer of steel specialty products that was already slated for closure if no investor could be found, according to the statement.
Bain invested more than $100 million to turn the company around and upgrade its facilities, the statement said. But in the end, Bain said it could not compete with the flood of cheap foreign steel pouring into the country.
Joe Soptic, a former GST Steel worker who lost his job after 21 years, accused Romney and his partners of cutting corners to save costs. On a media conference call orchestrated by the Obama campaign, Soptic said, “I felt like I was going to war every day,’’ fighting for safety goggles and respirators.
Though GST Steel went bankrupt, Bain pointed out that it helped launch and expand the $6 billion
Shortly after Bain released its statement, the Romney campaign sent reporters a new Web ad highlighting the investment in Steel Dynamics, which an unidentified worker called “the perfect entrepreneurial story.’’
“When others shied away, Mitt Romney’s private sector leadership team stepped in,’’ the voiceover said. “American workers in a small town - proving that anything is possible in America.’’
The Obama campaign pointed out that Steel Dynamics had received $77.8 million in tax incentives and public funding to build in Indiana.
Romney, having run for office four times, is by now accustomed to defending his corporate record, which has repeatedly come under attack in his rivals’ political ads - sometimes unsuccessfully.
The attempt by Democratic gubernatorial nominee Shannon O’Brien to reprise the Kennedy advertising strategy flopped in 2002 even though the AFL-CIO, as it did during Kennedy’s 1994 race, flew in out-of-state workers who had lost their jobs under Bain management.
Romney’s campaign, having learned from 1994, launched an aggressive counterattack and accused O’Brien of exploiting the workers and distorting Romney’s role.
In January during the GOP primaries, a super PAC backing Newt Gingrich plunked down $1 million on a 27-minute documentary assailing Romney’s years at Bain, accusing him of “killing jobs for big financial rewards.’’
Romney’s campaign responded by chiding the former House speaker for attacking capitalism. But the television ad based on the documentary ultimately helped kill Romney’s chances of winning the South Carolina primary, which Gingrich won.Tracy Jan can be reached at email@example.com.