Can Romney Play Defense Against Bain Attacks?

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The last week has proved that attacks on private equity hold risks for Obama. But we still don't know if Romney has an effective response.

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Reuters

Mitt Romney, it turns out, has a core after all.

You may remember that for months -- dating back to October -- President Obama's most persistent criticism of Romney has been that he has no core. Chief strategist David Axelrod said it first, followed by senior White House adviser and 2008 Obama campaign manager David Plouffe.

"You look at issue after issue after issue, he's moved all over the place," Plouffe said of Romney on NBC's Meet the Press. "You need to have a true compass. And you've got to be willing to make tough calls."

The "no core" line of attack worked about as well as the "right-wing ideologue" criticism that cropped up earlier this year, which is to say not at all. Since it became clear that Romney would be the GOP standard-bearer, he has rallied the support of 90 percent (Gallup) or 91 percent (CBS News/New York Times) of Republican voters. In the first month that he was able to raise money for the general-election campaign and the Republican National Committee, Romney took in $40.1 million, just under Obama and the DNC's $43.6 million April haul. Romney has tightened up the yawning poll deficits he was facing among independents and women. The race is now a dead heat.

That has led the Obama campaign to discover a new Romney they somehow missed -- a rapacious capitalist. Romney's Bain Capital, according to Team Obama, is a prism through which to view the decisions Romney would make as president.

This is not where Obama thought he would find himself: making a general-election argument in late May. But he also knows he has no choice.

With Europe's financial system on the brink and the U.S. economy still fragile, attacking Romney on the central premise of his campaign -- that he can use his business experience to turn around the U.S. economy -- is a tactic with some appeal. In an election that will be defined by economics, Romney's perceived strength is Obama's biggest weakness. That means Obama has no time to waste. He can't wait for October; he must drive down confidence in Romney's ability to handle the economy now.

That's why Obama's campaign began waging war on Romney's role at Bain last week. It's also why Obama, against the background of the NATO summit, took the unusual step of talking politics amid serious discussions about the war in Afghanistan and the fate of the euro. "This is not a distraction," Obama said of his critique of Romney's Bain years and Romney's claim that his business success makes him a good manager of the economy.

Romney's team has told surrogates that they are ready for this debate. But where and under whose guidance? Romney's? The campaign delights in leaping upon the briefly discordant voices of Democrats Cory Booker, Harold Ford Jr., and Steven Rattner. But that betrays a central Romney weakness on Bain: He still appears uncomfortable with the topic. He was in 1994, when the late Sen. Edward Kennedy raised it and crushed him by 18 points in what otherwise was a very good Republican year. Romney was similarly awkward earlier this year when Republican primary challengers Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry raised the issue. Romney won, but the awkwardness remained.

If anything, Romney had to rely on surrogates -- some already on the team and some who jumped into the fray for philosophical reasons -- to see him through. Surrogates won't save Romney this time. And counting on Democrats who clash with Obama won't work either (they will recant, anyway, as Booker did over and over again this week).

Since the Bain attacks have started, Romney's personal response can't even charitably be described as ghostly. He hasn't addressed this issue at all, unable to discuss a central element of his biography. A growing number of Republicans fear that he doesn't have the stomach for this fight -- at a philosophical or political level.

That might be selling Romney short, but the fact is he can't wait much longer to offer a fulsome, emotional explanation of the Bain years. There is peril and possibility aplenty. If Obama whittles away at his Bain tenure, he buys time and forces Romney to win back that which he's lost -- while Obama continues to knit together party constituencies. That's the peril. The promise for Romney is an argument -- if he has one -- that explains who and what he was at Bain, why it matters in understanding a 21st-century global economy, and how it will guide his policies as president.

The October surprise is that the general-election campaign is here -- now. Obama announced to the world that Romney is unfit to lead on the economy. Time to find out what lies at Romney's core.

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Major Garrett is a congressional correspondent for National Journal.

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