Has the Obama Campaign Gotten Under Romney's Skin?

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Romney has spent months trying to bait the president into a reaction, but now it's the Republican who seems to be getting hot under the collar.

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Updated 4:43 p.m.

Mitt Romney has had enough. Fed up with President Obama's attacks on his business record, he is -- or at least his surrogates are -- going to drop the Mr. Nice Guy act and start calling his opponent a liar, BuzzFeed's McKay Coppins reports. Romney's campaign had already gone there -- an email Saturday from spokeswoman Andrea Saul was headlined "Obama's Desperate Lies," for example -- but to turn the L-word, usually avoided in politics, into a surrogate talking point represents a new front.

To the many Republicans thirsty for blood and concerned that Romney's campaign has been too passive, this will surely be welcome news. But it's rather ironic that Team Romney appears to have been baited into an emotional reaction after months of trying, unsuccessfully, to bait the Obama campaign.

This is the same Romney campaign that sent bubble-blowing hecklers to David Axelrod's press conference in Boston, deployed its campaign bus to circle and honk outside Obama events, and had a staffer confront Joe Biden personally at a restaurant in Ohio. In another move that seemed designed to get in Obama's face, Romney himself staged a press conference in front of the failed solar-energy company Solyndra.

But the Obama campaign's response to this, aside from a bit of huffiness about Romney's failure to condemn such tactics, has largely been "meh." Meanwhile, the president continues to conduct a gleefully negative campaign, complete with misleading attack ads and disingenuous character slams. (Romney, of course, has been guilty of the same types of distortions.) Romney prides himself on being thick-skinned -- "I've got broad shoulders," he's fond of saying -- but now he appears to have been driven to his limit.

The question is whether, in lashing back at his attacker, Romney could be playing right into Obama's hands. Up to now, Romney has always taken care to insist that he believes the president is a good man and well-intentioned, just wrong. It's a tacit acknowledgement that, however much voters have soured on Obama, they still largely like him personally -- and they like him a lot more than they like Romney. If Romney (not just his surrogates, who can always be held at arm's length) starts taking Obama's bait and calling him a liar, he might convince a few people to be skeptical of what the president's selling. But he could convince more of them to see him as a thin-skinned churl.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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