Mitt Romney would later describe it as one of his biggest regrets about his first run for public office.
In 1994, Romney was a virtual unknown running to unseat Ted Kennedy as U.S. senator from Massachusetts. He campaigned on his business record as a turnaround artist at Bain Capital. But Democrats turned Romney’s Bain record against him, casting him as a cold-blooded capitalist who put profits before workers.
The Democratic argument was illustrated by a strike at the Ampad paper plant in Marion, Ind., which had recently been acquired by Bain. The firm had fired most of the plant’s employees, offering to rehire them back for reduced wages and benefits. Romney, who was on leave from Bain at the time because of the campaign, had no direct role in the Ampad dispute, but Kennedy seized upon the drama inside the company. Kennedy even appeared with some of Ampad’s workers, who traveled to Massachusetts to protest Romney’s claim of being a job creator at Bain.
Romney distanced himself from Ampad and other Bain-controlled companies by insisting he had no day-to-day role in what Bain was doing. Yet in an interview with the Boston Globe a few weeks after his loss in November 1994, Romney admitted that he was haunted by his failure to respond to the attacks on his record at Bain. He often woke up at night thinking about his missed opportunities in the campaign, he said.
And he said his biggest mistake was failing to quickly respond to Kennedy’s attacks over Ampad.
“It left in the minds of voters I was a bad guy, a corporate downsizer and raider, and I should have responded more vehemently,” Romney told the Globe. “I am a big boy and I know how politics is played. But I thought it would play more to the facts.”
Eighteen years later, President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies have spent tens of millions of dollars on television ads casting Romney as a dangerous corporate raider who doesn’t care about the middle class. In recent days, the Obama campaign has expanded that attack, accusing Romney of being secretive about his estimated $250 million personal fortune, much of which he accrued during his time at Bain. It’s all a part of a larger effort by Democrats to cast Romney as a rich guy out of touch with the Americans who are struggling under the bad economy—a strategy that could help Obama deflect criticism that he hasn’t done enough to turn the economy around.
Romney and his staff have been slow to push back on the Democratic attacks, which has prompted much hand-wringing among Republicans who worry that the Obama campaign is going to cement an impression of Romney in voters’ minds before the party’s presumptive presidential nominee can define himself.
The Romney campaign signaled a more aggressive tactic toward the Obama campaign on Thursday, unveiling a new TV ad airing in key swing states that accuses the president of lying about Romney’s record. That was followed up on Friday by a second ad that uses Obama’s own words to decry “scare tactics” in campaigns. They also unveiled a new page on the Romney website, calling out Obama for his distortions.
But at the same time, the Romney campaign appeared to be caught flat-footed by a story in the Boston Globe that suggested Romney may have worked at Bain Capital longer than he previously suggested. Although the campaign issued statements calling the story inaccurate, the story itself noted that Romney officials would not be quoted on the record responding to the Globe’s questions. The move appeared to reflect a Romney strategy that was frequently exercised in during the primaries, in which the campaign tried to kill news stories by simply not responding to them—a tactic that is unlikely to be as successful heading into the heat of the general election.
The Obama campaign immediately latched on to the Globe report, with Stephanie Cutter, Obama’s deputy campaign manager, going so far as to accuse Romney of potentially committing a felony by misstating his role at Bain Capital.