The Washington Post

Romney tries to regain momentum with new focus on Obama’s ‘political payoffs’

Trying to shift the presidential campaign narrative away from his personal finances and tenure at Bain Capital, Republican Mitt Romney will launch a fresh assault this week accusing President Obama of political cronyism at the expense of middle-class workers.

In a coordinated offensive starting Monday, the Romney team and its allies will say that the president has been a “typical politician” and has demonstrated “systematic favoritism” toward top campaign fundraisers by lavishing them with federal appointments and their companies with taxpayer money and special government deals, according to campaign officials.

All year on the stump, Romney has broadly labeled Obama a “crony capitalist,” but aides said the presumptive GOP nominee will deliver the attack to voters in a sharper and more substantive and sustained manner beginning at a Tuesday rally in Pennsylvania.

The overall effort, under the branding “Obama’s Political Payoffs and Middle Class Layoffs,” will highlight alleged administration favoritism toward more than 200 Obama donors. The campaign will push the theme through online videos, appearances by Romney surrogates and messages tailored to battleground states, as well as Spanish-language and other specialty media. Campaign officials said they are considering television advertisements as well.

“If you’re a political donor to Barack Obama, you’re going to do fine, because you’re going to get a payoff. If you’re a middle-class worker, you’re in jeopardy, you’re facing a layoff,” Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to Romney, said on CNN’s “State of the Union.”

Obama campaign officials see this as a weak line of attack, in part because, they said, Romney played favorites by steering tax breaks to some companies over others as governor of Massachusetts.

“It’s clear that Mitt Romney will do anything to avoid answering serious questions about his tenure as a corporate buyout specialist,” Obama spokeswoman Lis Smith said. “But launching false attacks that only boomerang on his record of cronyism in Massachusetts and the Olympics won’t do it.”

With some prominent Republicans urging Romney to fight back harder against stinging attacks from Obama over his Bain career, the new cronyism offensive is designed to put Romney and his campaign back on the offensive and to force Obama to fight on the politically difficult terrain of the economy.

“We’re turning the page,” one adviser said.

It is unclear how easily Romney will be able to regain his footing in a race that has become consumed by questions surrounding his career at Bain, the private-equity firm he founded and ran, and his unwillingness to share more personal financial information.

In a rare move to defend himself, Romney granted interviews to all five major television news networks Friday night, but he did not put the issue to rest. He has not fully clarified the confusion surrounding his tenure at Bain — specifically the scope of his involvement between 1999 and 2002, when he was running the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City but remained listed as Bain’s chief executive.

Gillespie said Sunday that Romney “retired retroactively” but was not responsible for Bain’s day-to-day decisions while overseeing the Games.

“He took a leave of absence from Bain and left a life that he loved to help a country that he loves more, to save the Olympics,” Gillespie said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

But for the Obama campaign, that is an unsatisfactory explanation.

“Either you’re the CEO, president, chairman of the board of Bain Capital, as you attest to the SEC, or he’s telling the American people he bears no responsibility for that. Both those things can’t be true,” Stephanie Cutter, the president’s deputy campaign manager, said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

Meanwhile, Romney is being scolded for not disclosing more than two years of tax returns. Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) called on him to “release everything to the American people,” a sentiment echoed on the Sunday political talk shows by former George W. Bush strategist Matthew Dowd and conservative commentators George F. Will and William Kristol.

This comes as Romney struggles to beat back weeks of attacks from Obama, which some Republicans are fretting could stick with voters, referencing the damage caused by the Republican-led “Swift boat” attacks on the military record of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), the Democratic nominee in 2004.

Romney’s advisers insist that Obama’s television ads about Bain have not damaged the Republican; most public polling suggests the race remains a dead heat.

Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist, said Obama’s latest ad — which pairs Romney’s singing of “America the Beautiful” with references to news reports linking him to the outsourcing of jobs and to a Swiss bank account — is evidence of the Obama campaign “melting down.”

“It’s like you’re in an argument and you’re not winning, so you just start screaming,” Stevens said in an interview. “This is the Barack Obama who mocks people who cling to their guns and religion and sing patriotic songs like ‘America the Beautiful,’ who condescends to the middle class by calling them ‘Uncle Jims.’ ”

Yet the Romney campaign has felt compelled to respond with paid advertising, including a spot released Sunday that accuses Obama of running a negative campaign.

Romney’s new offensive Monday will focus on some companies that have long been the subject of public debate — such as green energy firm Solyndra and electric-car maker Fisker Automotive — but will introduce research about other companies whose connections to the administration have not been under as bright a spotlight.

They include the Westly Group, a venture capital firm whose portfolio companies reportedly have received more than half a billion dollars in economic stimulus money, loans and grants from the Energy Department. Founder Steve Westly is one of Obama’s biggest bundlers in California and sits on an advisory committee to Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

Other examples include First Wind, an energy firm that hired an Obama bundler and former senior aide to Vice President Biden as its lobbyist and later secured $452 million in stimulus grants for its wind farms; and BrightSource Energy, which, after hiring a second former top Biden aide as its lobbyist, won a $1.6 billion federal loan guarantee to complete construction of three solar energy plants.

Philip Rucker is a national political correspondent for The Washington Post, where he has reported since 2005.

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