When the history of the 2012 presidential campaign is written, three events are likely to stand out in explaining the sudden, dramatic change in the race’s narrative.
President Obama was once the prohibitive favorite to win a second term, especially after former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney was battered and belittled by Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and other Republican opponents during the GOP primaries.
Democrats gleefully concluded the Republicans had given them a roadmap for taking down Romney in November, including his flip-flops on health care reform, abortion and other key issues – as well as his “job killing” tactics as co-founder of Bain Capital, the private equity investment firm.
But recent polls show the race has tightened, with Obama at best holding a modest lead. A new Gallup Daily tracking poll actually has Romney ahead of Obama, 49 percent to 45 percent, among middle-income voters and upper income Americans. And the key events – including one that takes place today in Wisconsin – have changed the complexion and dynamic of the campaign, leaving Obama more vulnerable to defeat.
May 21: A premature attack on Romney
Obama told reporters at a NATO summit in Chicago that attacks on Romney’s experience at Bain Capital were fair game and that Romney’s claims that he generated jobs as head of the private equity firm warranted serious debate. Until then, Obama had left it to his campaign aides and supporters to condemn Romney’s past “vulture capitalist” business practices of buying, downsizing and then selling companies that cost many jobs but made huge profits for his investors.
But when asked by a reporter to respond to a comment by New Jersey’s Democratic Mayor Cory Booker that the campaign attacks on Romney and Bain Capital were “nauseating” – a comment Booker later walked back under pressure from the White House – Obama set aside his mantle of president and commander in chief to take on Romney directly.
"You know, he’s not going out there touting his experience in Massachusetts [as governor],” Obama said. “He’s saying, I’m a business guy and I know how to fix it, and this is his business. When you’re president, as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, your job is not simply to maximize profits."
Incumbent presidents typically challenge opponents by name closer to the election– and sometimes not until the run-up to the presidential debates in the fall. Instead, Obama used the occasion of a high-level meeting of NATO leaders in the Windy City to take on Romney, possibly squandering a winning strategy that will seem like old news in the fall.
Targeting Bain also poses the risk of further alienating wealthy Wall Street executives who accuse the president of engaging in class warfare and who are already highly critical of efforts to tighten financial industry regulations. Former president Bill Clinton, a surrogate for Obama, has cautioned against being overly critical of Romney’s business and political experience. While predicting an Obama victory in November, Clinton also characterized Romney as “the man who has been governor and had a sterling business career crosses the qualification threshold.”
Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt contends the Bain attacks are resonating with voters, noting that a recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed that registered voters by a 2-to-1 margin viewed Bain negatively. And while Booker and Clinton may have sent mixed messages about Bain and private equity, LaBolt says there’s “a very different conversation in battleground states than there is among elites in the Northeast corridor.”
Last week, Romney rather effectively countered the Democratic attacks with a speech in Fremont, Calif., blasting the administration for funneling $535 million in federal loan guarantees to a politically well-connected solar energy company, Solyndra, that later went bankrupt.