Obama Attack Ads on Bain Capital Are Risky, But Essential

As Incumbent, He's Playing by Rulebook in Targeting Romney's Capable-Businessman Image

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By running ads attacking Mitt Romney's involvement in equity firm Bain Capital, President Barack Obama may be rolling the dice -- making fellow Democratic politicians looking for cash nervous and opening himself to attacks that he has no private-sector business experience.

But political analysts say he has no choice.

"Mitt Romney's calling card is that he is a businessman who can get this country out of a recession. Obama has to attack that ," said Stephen Hess, an expert on presidential elections at think tank the Brookings Institution.

Mr. Hess said all incumbent presidents must quickly try to demolish the image challengers portray and the Obama campaign is playing by that rulebook. The president's campaign is running a documentary-style ad in key swing states that blames Mr. Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, for the closure of the Kansas City plant of GST Steel, which Bain Capital acquired in 1993.

The ad features veteran steelworkers who lost their jobs at the plant. The ad also can be found on RomneyEconomics.com, along with a number of other case studies that portray Bain as a firm that buys up companies, squeezes out all the profit and then dumps them. Other companies mentioned so far include Ampad and retailer Stage Stores.

But blasting Mr. Romney for his career at Bain Capital has its risks, said Jennifer Duffy of the Cook Political Report.

"Obama's early ads on Bain could go either way for Romney," she said. "If the message is effective, they could pin Romney down early and he could spend every day from now until November defending his record at the expense of his own message on the economy."

One problem is that the attacks on Mr. Romney aren't new. They were used against him when he ran for governor of Massachusetts, again four years ago on Mr. Romney's first try for the White House and most recently during the Republican presidential primaries.

"To most voters, Bain is not a new issue; they at least recognize the name. And, the Romney campaign isn't surprised by this line of attack and had been thinking about a response," Ms. Duffy said.

In fact, the Romney campaign quickly responded to the GST ad with its own, featuring current employees of Steel Dynamics thankful for the investments from the likes of Mr. Romney that helped the company grow.

Mr. Hess said Mr. Obama and his Democratic allies, to date, haven't hammered Mr. Romney as much as former President George W. Bush pummeled Sen. John Kerry. Mr. Bush spent $40 million on advertising the moment Mr. Kerry emerged as the expected Democratic nominee in March of 2004. Mr. Bush's ads attacked what Mr. Kerry's campaign considered the challenger's strengths --his knowledge of foreign affairs -- by accusing Mr. Kerry of "flip-flopping" on a defense-spending bill. The strategy worked; Mr. Kerry's negatives rose substantially.

Mr. Obama's attacks are likely to intensify as more voters focus on the race in the summer and fall.

Ms. Duffy said that if Mr. Obama's ads aren't effective, or if the anti-Bain message is already "baked into the cake" -- that is , voters have already heard about Bain and made up their minds about Bain's track record -- "Romney can put the issue to rest early."

"The Obama campaign will then need to try a different message," she said.

The Bain strategy is also risky because some Democrats are uncomfortable with attacks on equity firms, which they fear sound like attacks on capitalism.

Mr. Romney's campaign was quick to capitalize on criticisms by Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker and a fellow Democrat, former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Tennessee. The campaign released a video of the Democrats' defense of equity firms that asks, "Have you had enough of Obama's attacks on free enterprise? His own supporters have."

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, has released his first general-election campaign ad, running in battleground states, called "Day One."

The ad details a rash of things Mr. Romney would do on his first day as president, including the repeal of health-care reform, the approval of the Keystone oil pipeline and the introduction of tax cuts.

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