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.
This image provided by Keith R. Judd shows the federal prisoner Keith Russell Judd, 49, at the Beaumont Federal Correctional Institution in Beaumont, Texas in this March 15, 2008 file photo.
The name of the federal prisoner -- Keith Judd -- who won 41 percent of the vote versus President Barack Obama in Tuesday's West Virginia Democratic primary isn't as important as the fact that the incumbent commander in chief won only 59 percent of the vote.
Republicans have giddily seized on Obama's relatively poor showing in the primary as an indicator of weakness. Though, it's notable that Obama has never performed particularly well in West Virginia, and he's not expected to carry the state versus Mitt Romney in the general election.
Even in a Democratic wave year, Republican John McCain beat Obama in West Virginia by a 13-point margin. And in the Democratic primary that same year, even though the race for the nomination appeared virtually over, Hillary Clinton crushed Obama, 67 percent to 26 percent.
While West Virginia traditionally elects Democrats to statewide office, it is culturally conservative. West Virginia’s relatively poor residents rely heavily on pork projects from the government, as well as programs like Medicare and Medicaid. (A recent USA Today analysis found that West Virginia gets 28 percent of its income from government programs, more than any other state. Also, its population is second oldest in the nation, behind Florida.)
Even though many of those factors would seem to point toward support for Obama, the president has just simply never been popular there. One of the few areas in 2008 where McCain improved over past elections was Appalachia, an area that overlaps heavily with West Virginia's population.
But is there a cautionary tale for Democrats in the somewhat amusing scare led by Judd, who's serving a 17-and-a-half-year federal prison sentence in Texas after being convicted of making threats at the University of New Mexico?
The peculiar Obama effect in West Virginia has been apparent in the actions of the state's junior senator, Democrat Joe Manchin. A former governor of the state, Manchin tacked well to the right in his bid for the seat of the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd in 2010.
The Morning Joe panel discusses federal prison inmate Keith Judd -- who received 41 percent of the vote in West Virginia's Democratic primary.
So blunt were Manchin's efforts to distance himself from Obama that he released a TV ad that cycle showing him shooting a copy of the president's signature health care law.
Even though he won the 2010 election, he's been a thorn in Obama's side since joining the Senate, accusing him of failing to lead the charge on cutting spending last year. In a statement last month, Manchin said, “I have some real differences with both Gov. Romney and the president, as I have said many times."
But because Manchin won his seat in a special election, he must run for a full term again this November.
"Stimulus deficit spending? Manchin is your man. The Obama agenda? Joe is on board more than 85 percent of the time," John Raese, Manchin's Republican opponent in 2010 who's challenging the senator again this fall, wrote Wednesday in the Charleston Gazette.
Democratic West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has also been coy about whether he'll even vote for Obama this fall. ("His policies will put more burdens on West Virginia families who are simply trying to make ends meet," he said earlier this month.)
But Republicans have also targeted longtime Democratic Rep. Nick Rahall, who's been more vocal about his support for Obama.
"Obama losing six counties in the 3rd District to a Texas prison inmate is the canary in the coal mine that Rahall’s 36-year career in Congress is coming to an end," said Nat Sillin, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a statement.
There are plenty of other examples of instances in which Democratic candidates have sought to manage the extent to which they're tied to Obama. Republicans in some states have also had to wrestle with being tied to Romney.
According to a Democratic strategist familiar with the party's Senate campaign efforts, this is isn't atypical behavior. "I don't know that it changes all that much from one state to another. When our candidates agree, say so. When they disagree, say so."