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Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital years pose a target

President Obama and his reelection campaign are betting heavily that American voters are not ready to elect a wealthy wizard of the global economy to the highest office in the land.

Mitt Romney is not the first Republican presidential candidate with a background in business to run, but the challenger is the first who became rich in the exotic realm of private equity investment. The Democrats are trying to take what Romney has offered as his top credential for the Oval Office during a sluggish economy and use it to discredit his candidacy.

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For two months, Obama and his allies have carpet-bombed a group of key swing states with negative ads painting Romney and Bain Capital, the firm he once headed, as ruthless profiteers, who ran some businesses into the ground while making money, or investing in companies that outsourced jobs to cheap-labor markets overseas. The Romney camp has responded belatedly with an ad citing independent media reports that there was “no evidence” that Romney “shipped jobs overseas” while in charge of Bain.

Friday he denied forcefully that he had a role in Bain management after he left the firm in 1999, when Bain-affiliated companies took some of the actions criticized by Democrats.

Independent polling indicates the Democrats’ assault is having some effect, though after at least $46 million worth of mostly harsh attack ads over that time, Obama retains only a slim lead in most surveys.

The Romney campaign is convinced that in the end voters will worry more about his ability to manage the government’s rickety finances than the way he handled his own, including a tax return that indicates recent holdings in the tax havens of Switzerland, Bermuda, and the Cayman Islands.

The Bain attack by the Obama camp would be routine campaign stuff were it not for its prolonged ferocity and the full-blown character assault that accompanied it, signs that the president’s campaign considers this its best shot to cripple the Romney candidacy early. On Thursday, Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter went so far as to suggest Romney may have lied or committed a felony, following reports in the Globe and other media outlets about documents that raised questions about when Romney relinquished his managerial role at Bain.

‘You can say some of this is good and some of this is bad, but that doesn’t work in campaigns. The Obama campaign is not going to be nuanced about this.’

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Other reporting, however, produced evidence supporting the assertions by Romney and Bain that he exercised no control over Bain’s investment decisions during the period he left the firm to oversee the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. A Romney campaign ad on the air now claims Obama “doesn’t tell the truth” about Romney and Bain.

When Romney gave up control of Bain is relevant because an Obama ad slamming Romney for “shipping jobs overseas” refers to companies, in which Bain invested, that provided services in overseas markets to US businesses but after Romney left to manage the Olympics.

“We’ve come a long way from the time when the United States was proud of the fact it was the finance center of the world, but I think private equity and these new forms of wealth creation have in too many cases been abusive and what the Obama campaign seems to be trying do to is play a game of guilt by association,” said David Gergen, a professor and administrator at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and former adviser to both Republican and Democratic presidents.

“What I found surprising is that [Obama’s campaign] immediately accused or strongly suggested that Romney might be a felon. That used to be below the belt,” Gergen said. “Today, apparently, there is no belt.”

This is the campaign of extreme caricatures: Obama as socialist sympathizer vs. Romney as robber baron. Through sophisticated polling and voter identification methods, the messages are targeted to the relatively small number of undecided likely voters in fewer than a dozen states.

“The argument comes down to ‘Do you want someone like Obama, who was a community organizer, whatever that means to you? Or do you want Romney who was CEO of Bain Capital and whatever that means to you?’ ” said Richard R. Lau, a Rutgers University political science professor who specializes in the psychology of voter decision making.

“Before Obama became president, many Republicans feared him and hated him — and that’s not too strong a word — and that was before he did anything,” said George C. Edwards III, a Texas A & M University professor who has written extensively about the presidency. “So, the Democrats are savaging Romney just as Republicans have been savaging Obama because they see that as the only way they can win.”

The cudgeling of Romney for his Bain experience has had mixed results in the past. In 1994, Senator Edward M. Kennedy unloaded a Bain-themed broadside that stopped a Romney challenge in its tracks. When Romney ran for governor in 2002, Democrat Shannon P. O’Brien reprised the strategy, but Romney won anyway.

This year, prominent Democrats have come to Romney’s defense regarding his Bain years. They include Bain Capital managing director and Boston Celtics managing partner Stephen G. Pagliuca, who was hired by Romney.

In a CNBC interview last week, Pagliuca, an Obama contributor and unsuccessful candidate for US Senate in 2010, dismissed as “hyperbole” and “just politics” the Romney-Bain onslaught. “Absolutely not,” he said when asked if Bain had shipped jobs overseas.

“You can say some of this is good and some of this is bad, but that doesn’t work in campaigns,” said James P. Pfiffner, professor of public policy at George Mason University and specialist on the presidency, referring to the challenge faced by Romney. “The Obama campaign is not going to be nuanced about this.”

Brian Mooney can be reached at bmooney@globe.com.
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