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GOP frets about swing state toll on Romney from Bain attacks


Republicans are beginning to look with trepidation at the Obama campaign’s all-out effort to turn Mitt Romney’s business experience into a political liability, particularly in corners of the country that could decide the November election.

President Obama's campaign is claiming Mitt Romney outsourced jobs to China and Mexico during his time at Bain Capital. But is this an effective strategy for the president? NBC News' Chuck Todd and the Washington Post's Eugene Robinson join the conversation.

President Barack Obama’s team has relentlessly blanketed the airwaves in specific states – like Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania – looking to prime swing voters who might be susceptible to fret over suggestions that Romney had contributed to the growth in outsourcing jobs overseas during his time at Bain Capital. 

Republicans, including Romney, dismiss the ads as a distortion and a distraction from the president’s own record on the economy. But some in the GOP worry these attacks could take their toll and prove effective unless action is taken.

Charles Dharapak / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's business experience may become a political liability in the November election.

“As a baseless charge, this is something that can potentially be dispelled,” said former Pennsylvania Rep. Phil English, a Republican who represented the blue collar town of Erie. “But if the Romney campaign does not aggressively engage it and address it directly, I think they could suffer, potentially, a significant loss of voters.”

The Obama campaign’s line of attack versus Romney found its origin in the Republican primary, when Romney’s opponents charged him with perpetuating “vulture capitalism” during his time at Bain Capital. They pushed him to release years’ worth of tax returns, which the Obama campaign is now demanding as well.

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Though the Obama campaign endured a measure of friendly fire from Democrats (who questioned the wisdom of attacking Romney’s private sector career) since it revived these attacks for the general election campaign, they largely haven’t let up in their scrutiny of Romney’s Bain record.

"Outsourcing versus insourcing. It matters," one of the Obama campaign's ads says, flashing pictures of Romney and Obama, respectively.

They were handed an additional piece of ammunition by a Washington Post article labeling Bain a “pioneer” in the practice of outsourcing while Romney was in charge. The Obama campaign has spent millions on advertising trumpeting that claim, disregarding the nonpartisan group FactCheck.org’s research that the underlying assertion was untrue.

“This is not dissimilar to the stuff Sherrod Brown ran against me in '06, but the difference is the climate,” said Mike DeWine, the former Republican senator from Ohio who lost his bid for re-election in the 2006 Democratic wave election.

DeWine, who now serves as Ohio’s attorney general, switched his support from Romney to former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum during the GOP presidential primary, partly because he felt that Santorum would do a better job connecting with middle class voters.

“I don't know who's going to win, but this year is not '06,” he continued. “It remains to be seen whether they work in '12 or not.”

There are signs, though, that the Obama campaign’s attacks have had an effect. Forty-two percent of registered voters in a Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday said they think Romney’s work as a corporate investor did more to cut jobs, versus 36 percent who said it was more directed toward creating jobs.

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Strikingly, the poll also found that twice as many voters in swing states said that Romney’s business career was a major reason to oppose him than those who said it’s a major reason to support.

Republicans originally found success in using this line of attack versus Romney as recently as this year. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Gov. Rick Perry pummeled Romney over his business record and personal wealth leading into the South Carolina primary, contributing, in part, to Romney’s loss in that contest.

Katon Dawson, a longtime figure in South Carolina Republican politics who spearheaded Perry’s campaign there, said he didn’t expect Obama to find much success in using this tactic.

“If it didn't stick in the Republican primary, it's not going to work in the general,” he said. “There's no way they're going to blame Mitt Romney for a member of their family being out of work.”

English said he distinguished between the attacks on Romney’s wealth and personal background from the Obama campaign’s claims about outsourcing. The latter, he said, had the potential to be much more potent in pivotal Midwestern states.

“I think you have to answer ads with ads,” he said. “There’s a tendency by Republicans to assume the truth will catch up. I think there is a naive quality to Republican thinking that they don't have to answer these charges.”

“I think the rule in politics is to be on offense, and he’s got to be on offense, not defense,” DeWine said.

Republicans are quick to note, too, that Romney has plenty of time to do just that. They praise Romney’s organization and the tenacity of the candidate himself. DeWine noted that most Ohioans have been more tuned into the Fourth of July and recent weather than the presidential election. And Dawson said that conservatives are more mobilized behind Romney than ever, after the Supreme Court issued its decision upholding the president’s health care reform law.

But the president’s own bus tour last week provided some clues about where Team Obama thinks the election could be won or lost. The stops through northern Ohio and western Pennsylvania cut through many of the areas where economic anxiety is near its peak; these areas were among the hardest hit by the downturn in manufacturing, and the loss of jobs to overseas labor.

“They're going after the swing voter,” Dawson said of the Obama campaign’s strategy. “This game is going to be played out among 9-12 million people in the places that put Republicans back in charge in 2010.”

That sentiment underscores a reality that the Obama campaign has tailored its attacks against Romney to both play to voters they desperately need to win, while also exploiting what they think to be a vulnerability of Romney’s.

“Every candidate has strengths and weaknesses, and if it were another candidate, I guess Democrats would be doing something else,” said DeWine.