WASHINGTON -- A week after President Obama came under fire for another disappointing unemployment report, his team has succeeded in turning the focus of the 2012 campaign from jobs in general to a particular job: the one Mitt Romney was or wasn't doing for Bain Capital from 1999 to 2002.
The substance of the dispute is surely a muddle to many voters. Independent fact-checking organizations including FactCheck.org and media outlets such as The Boston Globe are at odds over whether Romney can fairly be held responsible for Bain's decisions at that time, some of which contributed to outsourcing jobs.
But the political impact of the heated exchanges over that question seem clear. While the attacks open Obama to the charge that he is just another pol - not the agent of hope and change from his 2008 bid - the costs to Romney are more serious. Debate about his tenure at Bain has tarnished his business credentials and distracted him from the economic issues he would prefer to press.
"Look, let's be honest, the reason that the Obama campaign wants to do this is because they want to talk about anything but President Obama's dismal record when it comes to the economy," Ed Gillespie, a senior Romney adviser, said on CNN's State of the Union dominated by the issue. "And it's working."
"It has been a distraction," veteran GOP strategist Mary Matalin said on ABC's This Week, though she argued that voters care more about their own financial situations than that of the likely Republican nominee.
The Romney team dispatched Gillespie, New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte and spokesman Kevin Madden to TV studios Sunday. Their talking points: that Romney left Bain Capital when he took over the troubled 1999 Olympics in Salt Lake City and effectively never returned, even though SEC filings continued to list him as president, CEO and sole stockholder of the private-equity firm. The demands of the Olympics prompted him to "retire retroactively," Gillespie said.
The Obama team fielded Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, strategist David Axelrod and spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter with their talking points: that Romney either misled the SEC about his role when he signed the documents then (that would be a felony, Cutter noted in a conference call with reporters Thursday) or is misleading the American people now.
"He has made Bain Capital his calling card for the presidency, and when you look at it, it doesn't measure up to what he claims," Emanuel said. His advice to Romney: "Stop whining."
The subject might seem secondary in a contest with candidates who espouse sharply different philosophies about the role of government and conflicting visions about how best to boost the economy. But both campaigns take it seriously in an election that has less than four months to go and in a race that has been closely divided and relatively stable. Obama now holds a narrow lead over Romney, 47%-45%, according to Gallup's rolling seven-day survey.
Democrats are trying to broaden the Bain issue to raise questions about Romney's integrity and commitment to U.S. workers. They have tied it to their demands that he release more than the two years of tax returns he has promised and they are hammering him for having a Swiss bank account and investing in the Cayman Islands. "His tax filing looks more like an Olympic village than it does a middle-class family," Emanuel said.
Republicans counter by saying the attacks raise questions about Obama's character. In a one-day blitz of national TV interviews Friday, Romney said the attacks by the Obama campaign were "beneath the dignity of the presidency" and demanded an apology. (Obama has declined to oblige.)
On CBS Sunday Morning, the president acknowledged that his rival will base his campaign on his administration's failure to make the economy better than it is today. "You don't hear me complaining about him making that argument," Obama says, "because if I was in his shoes, I'd be making the same argument."
Both sides have unveiled broadcast ads as personal and cutting as any that have aired to date.
"When a president doesn't tell the truth, how can we trust him to lead?" the Romney ad opens.
"Mitt Romney's not the solution," an Obama ad concludes. It shows Romney singing America, the Beautiful as headlines are shown about his Swiss bank account and overseas investments. "He's the problem."