The other race shaping the 2012 campaign is Romney’s defeat at the hands of Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy in 1994. The Indiana paper company that was the subject of the anti-Romney attack on Monday, Ampad, marked a turning point in that year's Massachusetts Senate race. After Bain bought the company in 1992 and used it to acquire a paper factory, workers were laid off and then rehired at lower wages and benefits. The company ultimately went bankrupt, yet Bain made millions. Ads about the saga helped Kennedy leap over Romney in the polls.
“Obama is absolutely doing the right thing," said longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who helped run Kennedy’s campaign. “This is a very powerful issue. I saw its power in 1994. Romney was unprepared to deal with it well then, and he’s unprepared to deal with it well now."
Obama himself stepped into the fray during a news conference at the end of the NATO summit in Chicago, saying Bain is not a distraction -- it's what the campaign will be about. “When you’re president as opposed to the head of a private equity firm, your job is not simply to maximize profits. Your job is to figure out how everybody in the country has a fair shot,” Obama said. “If your main argument for how to grow the economy is ‘I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,’ then you’re missing what this job is about.”
Still, Obama’s offensive strategy carries new risks. In 2008, his negative ads tying McCain to an unpopular president had a receptive audience, weary of Bush and the war in Iraq. This time, Obama is facing the headwinds of a punishing economy. And while favorable views of Obama have helped to offset questions about his job performance, a negative campaign could hurt his personal appeal and hand Romney the lead.
Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker, an Obama supporter, lumped proposed conservative attacks on the president’s relationship with his former pastor with the anti-Bain crusade during an interview on Sunday on NBC's Meet the Press, describing both as “nauseating." Booker later released a video clarifying his support for Obama. Republicans seized on Booker’s remarks and a similar defense of the private equity sector from another Obama supporter, former Rep. Harold Ford of Tennessee, to highlight internal party discord over the Bain attacks.
In a new Web video called “Big Bain Backfire," starring (who else?) Booker and Ford, the Romney campaign framed Obama’s Bain offensive as “attacks on free enterprise." If the idea that Obama doesn't back the private sector catches on, it could reinforce Romney's claim that the president doesn't know how to fix the economy.
Still, the Obama campaign isn't backing down, with a top adviser, David Axelrod, saying on Monday that Booker “was just wrong." Shrum agreed and downplayed the remarks from Booker and Ford as fodder for Washington insiders only. The focus on the fallout from some of Bain's takeovers is aimed at laying the groundwork for a campaign that portrays Romney as a politician whose policies on taxes, Medicare, and health care would destroy the middle class.