Once upon a time, Obama, Biden, Romney, and Ryan were upbeat, well-liked problem solvers. Where did those guys go?


Joe Biden and Paul Ryan were the Capitol Hill veterans known for friendly relations -- sometimes even working relations -- across the aisle. Mitt Romney was the competent pragmatist who turned around the 2002 Olympics and enacted health coverage for almost everyone in Massachusetts. Barack Obama was the youthful symbol of hope and change.

Where are these people and will we ever see them again?

The latest exchange of Campaign 2012 -- Romney calling Obama a desperate, angry candidate running a reckless, hate-filled campaign, and Obama's team responding by calling Romney "unhinged" -- was the most ferocious so far. This is not a campaign destined to enhance reputations. The only question is how much wreckage it leaves behind.

Within two days of being named Romney's running mate, Ryan -- the studious budget nerd -- was on national television saying that Obama had brought "crony capitalism and corporate welfare" to "a whole new level." Romney received a maximum four Pinocchios from the Washington Post Fact Checker for making the crony capitalism charge, and he didn't even mention anything about "a whole new level." Obama campaign aides, meanwhile, have suggested that Romney was indirectly responsible for a woman's death from cancer and that he could be a felon based on inaccurate filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Romney is running ads that accuse Obama of gutting welfare work requirements, waging a war on religion, and letting his campaign "use the tragedy of a woman's death for political gain." He has accused Obama of "robbing" Medicare to finance his new health law and leading a divisive campaign "designed to bring a sense of enmity and jealousy and anger."

Obama for his part has an ad saying Romney does not support abortion in cases of rape, incest and when a woman's life is in danger -- a claim that, like Romney's welfare allegation, earned a "pants on fire" rating from PolitiFact. But many of Obama's ads are in fact about Romney's wealth, low tax rate and time heading Bain Capital, and are clearly meant to paint him as out of touch with everyday concerns. The president amplifies the point on the stump, often saying Romney's policies will help the rich at the expense of the middle class.

Biden stokes the populist themes and handles the more personal attacks, perhaps culminating this week with his ill-advised statement to a substantially African-American audience that by "unchaining" Wall Street from regulation, Romney and Ryan would "put you all back in chains."

But while high-decibel attack mode is the norm from both campaigns, there is a difference in how it may impact the individuals involved. Biden is 69 and aiming for another four years as vice president, at which point he probably won't be running for another office. By contrast, Ryan is 42 and has been on a rocket-like trajectory within his party. What will his national or even Wisconsin-wide brand look like after he endures a campaign-trail trial by fire?

Romney survived the GOP primaries by moving right, and even if he wants to, it may be hard for him to recapture his image as a problem-solver. Also, he has been personally delivering most of the character attacks against Obama, a risky strategy that could change now that Ryan is on board. As for Obama, his campaign is playing hardball and he likes to mix it up. In criticizing Romney's policy on wind energy, for instance, he worked in a dig about Seamus, the family dog who according to Romney enjoyed riding in a cartop carrier during vacations.

In a more serious vein, Obama has accused Ryan of helping to block the farm bill, often says he "fundamentally disagrees" with the Romney-Ryan trickle-down economic approach, and describes why in colorful terms that include "fairy dust." It's a less hot-button approach that may allow him to revive what Sarah Palin calls his "hopey, changey" image if he wins reelection. On the other hand, given the acidic jousting between the campaigns and the millions of people seeing hard-edged Obama TV ads every night, there's no guarantee of that.

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