One of the most consequential questions for the 2012 presidential campaign may be this: Who will succeed in defining Mitt Romney’s years at Bain Capital in the public mind?

I just chatted with Paul Begala, an adviser to the pro-Obama group Priorities USA, and he previewed how Dems will use the issue to paint Romney as a symbol of the predatory, unfettered capitalism that landed us in our economic crisis — and is now the target of rising public anger at Wall Street. He explained how Dems will push back on Romney’s efforts to define the Bain years on his own terms.

As Mike Allen noted this morning , the most important moment at last night’s debate was Romney’s extensive defense of his Bain tenure.
The transcript’s in the link, but Romney acknowledged that not all the businesses Bain restructured ended up succeeding; that this has left him with a “real world” sense of what makes private sector companies succeed and fail; and that at bottom, his motives were similar to what drove Obama to try to save the auto industry.

In other words, Romney will turn the layoffs that happened under Bain into a positive: Proof that he understands how private companies tick and that he will bring a businessman’s fresh eye to the economy and job creation. If voters who are tempted to give up on government’s ability to create jobs conclude that Romney is someone who can tinker around under the hood of the economy and get it humming again, it could be very dangerous for Dems.

Begala suggested a Dem response that goes directly to the heart of voters’ perceptions of what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable capitalist conduct — one that places a heavy emphasis on Romney’s self interest and on how he earned his enormous fortune.

“Obama can say, `I didn’t load all these companies up with debt, bankrupt them, lay off all their workers, and pay myself millions of dollars in the process,’” Begala said, referring to the contrast with Obama’s bailout of auto companies. “That’s where his storyline collapses. It doesn’t sit right to see companies go bankrupt and go through layoffs, and watch the layoff artist walk away with millions of dollars.”

Begala added that Dems would use this attack line to tell a larger story about Romney — and contrast it with Obama.

“The Bain years are central to Romney’s narrative,” he said. “If you think about the arc of his life, on a personal level, he seems to be an exemplary man. He was born with every advantage of wealth, power, and privilege. But he used all of those talents to enrich himself and his wealthy friends — and to screw the middle class. That feeds into his policy agenda.”

Begala contrasted that with “the contrary arc of Obama’s life.” He said ”Obama, too, went to the best schools. But he grew up poor, with a single mother. He graduated with the same platinum diploma.” Obama went into public service, while Romney “profited off the misery of others.”

“I dont think he can avoid the downside scrutiny,” Begala concluded. “This is not something he can buy a derivative to hedge against.”

We’ll see if it works. The state of the economy in November 2012 — and the voters’ conclusion about the efficacy of Obama’s policies in fixing it — may still trump all.