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Little off-limits as Romney preps counterattack


TOLEDO, OH -- Mitt Romney's campaign is putting on the brass knuckles in preparation for a no-holds-barred counteroffensive against President Obama's onslaught against the presumptive GOP nominee.

After a week of weathering scrutiny from Democrats and in the media, Romney's team has signaled it plans to launch an aggressive attack against the president, starting yesterday on the stump in Pennsylvania, when Romney accused Obama of cronyism during his time in office.

Evan Vucci / AP

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney campaigns at Horizontal Wireline Services July 17 in Irwin, Pa.

The new tack is aided by a new wave of spending by supporters of Romney. The cavalry arrived on Tuesday, as outside groups like Crossroads GPS and the Republican National Committee are helping Team Romney this week double up on Team Obama on the airwaves in swing states, $16 million to $8 million.

And there's more to come, Romney advisers say; Boston believes that the Obama campaign opened the door to a new level of negativity when deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter suggested last week on a conference call that Romney had either misled the American people about his time at Bain, or possibly had committed a felony by lying to the SEC about his departure date.

Inside the Romney camp, the "felon" moment was seen as a cue to drop the gloves, with Romney loyalists privately furious about the remark, but also seeing opportunity.

The president's brand, they contend, has always been to stay above the fray and not to be a normal politician. Now, one Romney adviser said, Obama has no higher ground to claim. The Romney ad team and campaign manager Matt Rhoades, all seasoned in the brutal 2004 Bush re-election campaign, know how to wage a fight on the low ground.

One adviser said that while they might not need to go personal to make their attacks effective, the “felon” comment made nothing off-limits in the Romney counterattacks.

Many conservatives had been clamoring for a more aggressive effort by the Republican’s campaign to respond to the president after being forced to fend off a wave of questions about Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital and whether he would release past tax records.

The former Massachusetts governor offered the first preview of what’s to come during his stump speech yesterday in Pennsylvania, when Romney reopened an old line of attack by accusing Obama of cronyism in his dealings with green technology firms like automaker Fisker or the defunct Solyndra.

“I am ashamed to say that we’re seeing our President hand out money to the businesses of campaign contributors, when he gave money, $500 million in loans to a company called Fisker that makes high end electric cars, and they make the cars now in Finland," Romney said. "That is wrong and it’s got to stop. That kind of crony capitalism does not create jobs and it does not create jobs here.”

Even though independent fact-checkers have cast doubts on that line of attack, the Romney campaign doubled down in a new television ad this morning that largely made the same case.

“Where did all the Obama stimulus money go?” the ad asks, before answering in ominous floating text: “Friends, Donors, Campaign Supporters, Special Interest Groups.”

Romney ad: "Where Did All The Money Go?"

Also today, Romney himself will continue to counter the president's messaging with economy-focused attacks, with an aide telling reporters that today Romney will say the president has plainly "just given up on the economy."

What’s more, many of Romney’s surrogates have taken up the task of leveling some of the most damning criticisms of Obama. Evidence of that came on Tuesday, when the Romney campaign unleashed its attack dog – former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, who on a conference call with reporters yesterday said he wished President Obama "would learn how to be an American."

Sununu walked back that line later, but in the same call other Romney supporters called the president's policies "socialist" and name-checked Tony Rezko, a corrupt Chicago political fundraiser Republicans have tried to link to the president.

One key factor, though, is hobbling the Romney offensive: cash.

The campaign spent $87 million, one Romney insider explained, in winning the Republican primary. Every TV-ready public event costs money to organize – anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. And while Romney has touted impressive funraising totals between his campaign and the RNC in recent months, much of that money remains off-limits to the candidate until he is formally nominated in late August – and much of it is tied up in state parties and at the RNC, where it can't be deployed directly by the campaign.

NBC's Mark Murray and Michael O'Brien contributed.