With summer ticking past, Obama controls the narrative

Republican challenger Mitt Romney (Source: Wikipedia)

Last month, the In Box laid out the considerable hurdles that Republican challenger Mitt Romney faces as he tries to unseat President Barack Obama.

The Republican has to overcome a systemic tilt which, even with the popular vote nearly tied at present, currently gives the Democrat a 50-70 vote advantage in the electoral college.

If the vote were held today, Mr. Obama would likely receive only a slight plurality of the popular vote, yet he would prevail with landslide numbers in the electoral college, winning by 332 to 206 margin.

Which means that to win, Romney can’t fight a trench warfare battle, muddling forward state-by-state.  His margin for error is just too thin.

Instead, he has to claim the high ground in the national narrative.  That means finding a way to fundamentally redefine Obama in the mind of voters, particularly the independents in a half-dozen swing states that will decide the outcome.

In other words, he has to do to Obama what George W. Bush did to Al Gore and John Kerry (and what Ronald Reagan did to Jimmy Carter).

So far, Romney hasn’t pulled that off.

Instead, he’s relied largely on the broad conventional wisdom within the conservative movement that the sputtering economy alone will define Obama, convincing centrist voters that his election in 2008 was a mistake and an aberration.

It’s true that the high unemployment number has left the president vulnerable.  So long as hiring remains stagnant, this race will remain competitive.

But with fewer than 120 days to the election, right now  it’s the Democrats who control the narrative.

It’s an astonishing turnabout for a party which for two decades was flummoxed and muddled by the conservative message-machine, tossed on the defensive by Willie Horton and Swift Boat type attacks.

In this election cycle, by contrast, the Obama campaign has embraced sharp-elbow tactics similar to the ones pioneered by right-of-center pols like Lee Atwater and Karl Rove.

Team Obama has focused media attention successfully on Romney’s tenure at corporate giant Bain Capital, often bending or shading the truth in order to paint the Republican as a slick corporate operator.

While fact-checkers have dismissed or downplayed many of the Obama campaign’s claims — about outsourcing and about Romney’s overseas investments — the story-line has still gained traction to a degree that no challenger can afford.

There’s an old saying that if you’re on the defensive in politics — if you are struggling to explain how your opponent is cheating or playing unfair or lying — then you’re losing.

Mitt Romney has demanded an apology and suggested that Obama should apologize.

But this overall dynamic is making conservatives nervous.  This from the Associated Press:

“There is no whining in politics,” chided John Weaver, a veteran Republican strategist. “Stop demanding an apology, release your tax returns.”

Meanwhile, it’s almost impossible to find a clear Republican line of attack that might define (or redefine) Obama in voter’s minds, at least in a bold enough way that would benefit Romney.

The GOP has attempted at various times to brand Obama as incompetent, anti-American, naive, and cynical.  One moment he’s a cold-hearted Chicago pol, the next minute he’s an underachieving, in-over-his-head bumbler.

The narrative is further muddled by the fact that it often gets tangled up in conservative conspiracy theories, from birtherism to claims that Obama isn’t a Christian.

Another problem:  Many of the surrogates attacking Obama have been clumsy, hysterical or outrageous.  The Swift Boat attacks on Kerry in 2004 were highly disciplined and effective.

But the end-times hand-wringing of Glenn Beck in 2012 discredit the larger, more plausible argument that the Democrats simply don’t have a credible plan to revive the national economy.

Finally, it hasn’t helped matters that Romney has failed to outline any real or substantive plans for what he would do if elected to the nation’s highest office.

Even many conservatives, including Karl Rove, have begun demanding more specifics.

“The closer Nov. 6 gets,” Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “the more pressure there will be on the GOP challenger to offer a principled, practical, detailed governing vision. He has many important policies on his website. He could cite them more consistently in his speeches and point voters to them in his campaign ads.”

The good news for Romney is that he has a ton of cash to use to tell his story.  Also, conservative anger at Obama, along with the sour economy, have kept the Republican in the game.

Sometimes, as a challenger, the best you can hope for is to stay close and hope that something goes your way.  You might catch a break and find an opening to surge ahead.

It worked for Ronald Reagan, who rode a late surge to the White House in 1980, after trailing in the polls through most of the campaign.

But Reagan had a clear, positive, ambitious story to tell.

With the weeks ticking by, it appears so far that Team Romney hasn’t figured out what narrative it wants voters to remember on election day –about their own candidate or about our current president.


64 Comments on “With summer ticking past, Obama controls the narrative”

  1. verplanck says:

    it’s OK to write a column that isn’t perfectly balanced between criticism of the GOP and criticism of the Dems!

    “While fact-checkers have dismissed or downplayed many of Team Obama’s claims”

    What do you think of those claims? Valid? Not? Do you think that someone who calls himself a CEO is not responsible at all for their company’s actions?

    “Another problem: Many of the surrogates attacking Obama have been clumsy, hysterical or outrageous. The Swift Boat attacks on Kerry in 2004 were highly disciplined and effective.”

    Really? There were no “clumsy, hysterical or outrageous” Kerry attacks in 2004? Let me post this as evidence to the heights of lunacy the swift boat attacks:


    One high-profile media example of the quality of the attacks Kerry took while campaigning, if you look back at the posts from 2004, there are far, far worse charges leveled.

    The whole concept of “swift boating” is to take a hysterical, outrageous attack and make it mainstream by constant repetition. In a narrow sense, you can have a swiftboat attack that is “highly disciplined and effective”, but it MUST have a “hysterical and outrageous” component to it, since the whole attack is premised on a lie. Take a read at wikipedia’s definition:


    I do not like that term very much, since its definition has divorced itself from how people use it these days. Now, people use it as a term for an effective political attack. Folks don’t tie in the fact that swiftboating is based on lies, and is catered to the extreme wing of the party.

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  2. mervel says:

    Brian has got this correct though.

    Obama is making Romney whine, and lets face it the Bain capital attacks have been shown pretty clearly to be pretty thin and not really true, but that is OK this is politics, this seems to have stuck on Romney.

    I think the most effective marketing the Democrats and the President have done is put the recession at the feet of the last administration. The narrative is that Bush caused this recession and Obama has gallantly tried for the past 4 years to clean up the mess.

    So really if that is the narrative, then even of Obama’s programs don’t work or are actually hurting, it does not matter, he is shown to be trying laboring under the burden of the mess that was left him. It has been very effective and Romney is just too boring, too stilted, too wooden, to come up with any response.

    You can’t say I will do the same thing that President Bush did, which is what he is saying, Bush had a 23% approval rating when he left. You can’t run on that legacy.

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  3. Brian Mann says:

    Verplanck –

    Before writing this column, I carefully researched this. And I think it’s reasonable to say that a lot of credible, unbiased journalists feel that the Obama team has exaggerated, simplified, and in some cases crafted deceptive narratives about the specifics of Romney’s role at Bain Capital.

    This is from one of the Washington Post’s left-of-center columnists, Greg Sargent:

    “As far as I can tell, no one has established evidence that Romney had direct involvement with the controversial deals involving jobs getting shipped overseas. Is Romney partly reponsible for the activities of a company at which he remained listed as CEO and chairman, even if he was not directly involved in running it? That’s ultimately a matter of opinion — the argument over that question is a political one — and as a result, it’s a fair case for Obama to make (and for the Romney camp to dispute). But that aside, it has not been established that Romney was directly involved in offshoring. As a result, as Jonathan Chait notes, the original ads Obama ran accusing Romney himself of offshoring are false.”

    So…I’m not reaching for a false-equivalency here. I’m suggesting that Obama is winning the narrative-war, in part by using pretty hardball and cynical tactics.

    –Brian, NCPR

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  4. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    The bottom line on the Bain thing is that Mitt Romney, the solid businessman, signed his name to documents that turned around and bit him. Anyone who signs a document knows that it is their legal responsibility if something goes awry because of it.

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  5. Larry says:

    Anyone who thinks that a CEO knows and approves of every detail of every operation in his organization has obviously never been one. Yes, you’re responsible, but that said, there has to be some degree of delegation. Primarily, you shape policy and delegate the execution to people you trust. Kind of like being president.

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  6. mervel says:

    Yeah, but it still is a pretty small deal. Obama is playing it well but most fact check’s have shown that Romney as he has stated over and over was not involved at all in the company after he left to run the olympics. This is a non-issue. However it shows that Romney is on the ropes that he feels he need to worry about it.

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  7. Larry says:

    Sad but true, mervel. Romney has been on the ropes since he entered the race. He is not a good candidate and frankly, as a Republican, I am sorry the GOP couldn’t find a better candidate. Maybe a couple of stinging defeats will move the party back towards the center and candidates who can win a national election. This pandering to the lunatic fringe has got to stop.

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  8. tootightmike says:

    Anyone who thinks that Romney wasn’t fully involved with whatever nefarious money-at-all-cost schemes hasn’t been listening. The working core of the party is wholly owned and operated by the rabid capitalists. They have crafted a message that sounds like any regular American could get behind. There is a slight of hand that takes place though…the same voice that promises to lower your taxes, while failing to mention the people and programs that will be hurt, is the same voice that promises corporate profits, while failing to mention the lay-offs.
    That party will give it all to the wealthy eventually, and make it seem like something every American asked for and Mr Romney is a believer.

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  9. mervel says:

    Larry I agree.

    I would like to see a good conservative run that can articulate some new ideas and a decent conservative message.

    Paradoxically, what is going to happen is that the fringe is going to say, see we told you, run a moderate and you lose, McCain and Romney are both moderates.

    To me it’s about having a good candidate, not about ideology. I would have preferred someone like Christy. At some point people are going to get sick of the nuts ruining the Republican brand.

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  10. tootightmike says:

    …and Christy’s not a nut??

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  11. mervel says:


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  12. mervel says:

    OK I will give you that following the dirty sleaze Corzine, anyone would look pretty good. I mean MF Global makes Bain look like a Charity helping the poor.

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  13. Kathy says:

    Anyone who signs a document knows that it is their legal responsibility if something goes awry because of it.

    Then Obama is going to have some explaining to do.

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  14. mervel says:

    Maybe Corzine the proud democrat used the hundreds of millions that are missing to help the poor? Maybe he created jobs? These guys all run in the same circles, from Obama to Corzine to Charlie Rangle to Mitt Romney to Bloggo to the Daley family. Don’t get deluded into thinking that Democratic-Republican politics are about right and wrong or good and bad. They are about what works and what wins.

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  15. Romney’s free market capitalism message suffered yet another blow in tonight’s news of the scandal in Iowa where yet another fraud scheme has lost hundreds of millions of investor money. Russell Wasendorf tried to commit suicide over the 20 year fraud that he conducted. It’s getting harder all the time to make a case for “private enterprise can regulate itself”.

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  16. mervel says:

    Very hard.

    I don’t understand not bringing back Glass Stengal? (sp?). But anyway we used to have a decent banking system, we had a savings and loan system that helped the middle class get mortgages.

    What does Buffet say, this downturn is like low tide, you see who is swimming with no suite. When things are going well these hucksters do fine.

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  17. mervel says:

    But you know what has Romney said different from George Bush? That is a loser message.

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  18. mervel says:

    Even if Bush was right, politically it is a loser.

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  19. newt says:

    The amazing thing is that so many voters will support someone who promises to bring back Bushenomics, the very policies that, more than anything else, caused the mess we are in today. Of course, many voters simply vote against whoever is in power if they disapprove of the way things are going. Nothing new there.

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  20. dave says:

    Of course a CEO is not directly in charge of every small detail of the organization that he or she runs.

    But which companies your organization invests in, buys, and then operates is not a small detail. We are not talking about buying office supplies here. That is a big, organizational decision that the CEO would have been involved in or, at the very least, would have been thoroughly consulted and briefed about. If he wasn’t, then I question what kind of organization he was running.

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  21. JDM says:

    “Team Obama has focused media attention successfully on Romney’s tenure at corporate giant Bain Capital, often bending or shading the truth in order to paint the Republican as a slick corporate operator.”

    Here’s to all the naive skulls-full-of-mush who thought for sure a new type of politician had arrived. Someone who rises above petty politics and is too great and too smart to have to deal with petty partisan politics.

    Well. It turns out Obama is nothing more than a Chicago street thug politician.

    So much for the wizards-of-smart on this one.

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  22. Dan3583 says:

    Well, I have a couple of questions:

    Why is Romney so adamant about his tax returns? Do they show income from Bain after 1999?

    If there are other similiar examples of CEOs, single shareholders, whatever, NOT being actively involved in the corporation in question, why aren’t we hearing about them? That would certainly help Romney.

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  23. Gary says:

    The fact that this race is so close is an indication that the voters are very unhappy with Obama’s accomplishments over the last three and a half years. The fact that Obama doesn’t talk about his accomplishments is an indication that he is not proud of his accomplishments. What’s left?

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  24. JDM says:

    Dan3583: “Why is Romney so adamant about his tax returns? Do they show income from Bain after 1999?”

    Obama was adamant about not releasing his birth certificate, and in the end, it wasn’t much of an issue.

    For whatever reason, Romney is doing the same with his income tax returns. Why waste so much energy on this? It is probably just like the Obama birth certificate. Not much of an issue.

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  25. JDM says:

    Or maybe we could start a new “birther” group for Romney.

    Dan3583, you can be the first “taxer”!

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  26. newt says:

    I am from Chicago, and the fact that you would catagorize Obama as a “Chicago Street thug politican” tells me two things. First of all, you have never lived or near Chicago. Second, you might want to watch tossing around “naiive…etc” . when referring to Chicago politcs. No one has gotten beaten up or roughed up there over politics since, well, at least since I was a kid in the ’50’s. The Daly’s, and their machine ruled by patonage, not violence. And most of that is now gone.

    Obama is playing a bit like the Mayberry Mafia, Karl Rove’s swiftboating propaganda thugs, except a good deal (if not perfectly) more fact-based in his accusations. And to think that Kerry, the chump, actually believed that Republican drivel about not going negative.

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  27. Walker says:

    JDM, you’re trying to set up an equivalence between Obama’s birth certificate and Romney’s taxes, but it doesn’t simply work.

    For anyone to believe that Obama’s place of birth wasn’t thoroughly vetted by the government ‘way back when he became a presidential candidate is simply absurd. It’s not as if the country was being run by a left-wing cabal at the time. If there was any rational way to prove that he was ineligible to run for the office, the Bush administration would have been all too happy to trot it out. It certainly wouldn’t take a two-bit county sheriff to do the job four years late.

    Romney’s taxes are another matter entirely. He’s under no legal obligation to produce them. Nothing in them could make him ineligible to run for president. But voters have a perfectly rational interest in seeing what’s in them. The more he refuses to release them, the more interesting the question of his reasons for refusing.

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  28. Larry says:

    The equivalency is not releasing information or data that people are asking for even if that information is not damaging. When information is withheld people will always ask why.

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  29. Walker says:

    Ah, but the birthers have kept asking long after the information was released.

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  30. Larry says:

    True, Walker. I find the whole “birther” thing idiotic and I am certainly no Obama supporter. Neither am I much interested in Romney’s tax returns. He’s wealthy and makes lots of money. Pays lots of taxes too, most likely. Both Obama and Romney have enough legitimate issues that people don’t need to focus on inconsequential things.

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  31. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I believe that Mitt Romney is or at least attempts to be PERFECTLY legal in his business affairs, and that is a problem because in being just legally correct and not morally responsible he becomes the kind of leader that this country cannot afford.

    Sure, he has made himself plenty of money and I’m sure he donates to charity and tithes to the church and all that. Good for him, I respect all of that. But if a person wants to be President of the United States of America they should understand that it is wrong to hold Swiss bank accounts and Cayman Island accounts. Legal? Yes, absolutely! But how can a man of that great wealth face the millions of hard working ordinary people who cannot afford to pay lawyers and accountants to tax shelter their earnings?

    I believe Mitt Romney is an honest man, but I don’t believe he truly understands what it is to be an ordinary American.

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  32. mervel says:

    I would have to agree. His whole life has been spent in the alternative universe of those born into wealth, privilege and power. I don’t think that necessarily means he would not be a good president. That criticism pretty much holds for the entire Kennedy family or our current Governor. Also some people after years of living and taking privileges forget what it is like to be an average constituent, Charley Rangle for example, a man I always liked and respected even though his politics are different from mine, but he drifted, he likes nice things, he likes power.

    I guess I would say many of our leaders are totally out of touch; some are just able to fake it better than Romney. I don’t think Clinton or Reagan were, I don’t think Obama is for example

    I have a hard time caring about this Bain Capital flap. The company did nothing illegal it made its shareholders money, it saved some companies and sold others. Of course it used outsourcing, just like Apple does and Nike does and most other good companies in today’s world economy. That is just a fact of life today.

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  33. mervel says:

    Remember NAFTA, how you know you were some sort of isolationist freak if you opposed free trade. Well guess what, free trade IS making and buying things from other countries because it is more efficient, that was the point, we can’t complain now.

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  34. JDM says:

    Walker: “Romney’s taxes are another matter entirely. ”

    Hoping to find some smoking gun, Walker?

    He’s really, really rich. That’s the only revelation that is going to come out. Big whoop.

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  35. JDM says:

    newt: I take your perspective, well. I get it. Obama isn’t in the stereotypical league that I was referring to.

    However, he isn’t the sizzle that everyone made him out to be either. He is just the usual, run-of-the-mill, dirty politician.

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  36. Walker says:

    “Hoping to find some smoking gun?”

    It’s not just a question of his making a ton of money. It’s the tax dodges that might prove interesting. I read somewhere that the Romneys take a $75k write-off on one of their horses, for example. And then there’s the Bain situation he’s working so hard to distance himself from, trotting out that $100,000 salary, like it’s such a pittance that it proves that he wasn’t hands on. But I’ve read that $100k is the minimum he could have taken in compensation for those years, that what he actually received could have been much higher. So let’s just see what it was.

    Anyway, releasing tax returns has become routine for candidates, a routine that was originated by Mitt’s dad, interestingly enough, who released twelve years worth.

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  37. Walker says:

    Besides, Mervel, we already know he’s really, really rich. So if it’s just a big whoop, as you suggest, why risk looking like you’ve got something to hide? Unless, of course, you have something to hide.

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  38. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I think Mervel’s point about multi-generational political families is a good one. This country wasn’t intended to be a land run by elites even though we do have a history of Adamses, Harrisons, Roosevelts, Kennedys, Bushes, Clintons or Cuomos.

    On the one hand I want to judge each candidate as an individual, but on the other hand I wonder if succeeding generations are succeeding on their own merit or just benefit from the prominent position of their family.

    By the way, I liked Mario but I’m not much of a fan of Andrew. And Hillary seems like the first woman President that should have been but wasn’t and wont be.

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  39. Paul says:

    What a pathetic. campaign we have going on this election.

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  40. Larry says:

    Why assume Romney has something to hide? In this political climate ostentatious wealth is not something to flaunt. Right-thinking people did not suspect Obama when he wouldn’t release his birth certificate. That was a great big nothing and so are Romney’s tax returns. Besides, there’s nothing wrong with using the tax code to one’s advantage. Does it make him somehow more worthy if he pretends not to be rich?

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  41. Walker says:

    Larry, again, the birth certificate and the tax returns are completely different issues– re-read my 7/15 2:02 post. And besides, Obama did ultimately release his birth certificate.

    I’m really not assuming anything about what the returns would show. But his refusal to release them in the face of growing pressure to do so raises suspicion. We already know he’s rich– so why fuel speculation by keeping them hidden?

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  42. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Obama never had to release his birth certificate. The information was already a matter of public record.

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  43. Peter Hahn says:

    Romney,s the guy who went nuclear against all his republican foes. I don’t see where he has any right to complain. I’m glad to see Obama’team playing hardball well. Turnabout is fair play.

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  44. Matt says:

    John McCain saw Mitts tax returns when vetting for the VP. He chose Palin over Romney.

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  45. Pete Klein says:

    Romney could have a serious problem with his tax returns.
    If tax returns between 1999 and 2002 show he was getting paid by Bain while it was busy exporting jobs, it would be reasonable to wonder how does one get a job where they get paid millions while they claim never to have done anything (no show job) to get paid those millions.
    Wouldn’t we all love a job where we have no responsibility, never have to do anything but get paid millions?
    As to the “nothing wrong with using the tax code to one’s advantage” argument, I would point out that here again wouldn’t we all love to “make” enough money to be able to “use the tax code to our advantage.” Trouble is most of us don’t make enough money to use the tax code to our advantage.

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  46. Paul says:

    The president campaign is doing an excellent job keeping everyone’s eyes off the ball.

    It was easy to support Obama when he ran a positive campaign last time. This time it seems like a joke.

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  47. Dave says:

    “Romney,s the guy who went nuclear against all his republican foes. I don’t see where he has any right to complain.”

    This is an interesting point. It is true that Romney ran what his opponents and news commentators consistently called one of the nastier GOP primaries in memory.

    For him to now cry foul about these Bain questions does seem a little whiney to me.

    Of course your business record is going to be examined and picked apart by your opponent, especially when you are running in part as the “business” candidate.

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  48. mervel says:

    I am sure Romney’s taxes are very complex and I would bet would be fodder for many weeks, this alone would give him good political reason to not release them. I mean its not like he is a tax cheat like Giehtner.

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  49. Peter Hahn says:

    Romney has one major arrow in his quiver to change the subject – choice of vice president. However, he can only use it once, and speculation is that he may be forced to use it soon.

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  50. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I guess I’m going to have to keep a list of all the reasons being rich makes it hard to run for President.

    1. Your tax forms are very long and complicated.
    2. You have to explain how it is that you can retire retro-actively.
    3. Is the $100,000 plus that you received while you were retroactively retired counted as income or retirement income?
    4. People find documents that you wanted to use to prove that you were a Massachusetts resident in 2000 (even though you lived in Utah) so that you can run for governor end up showing you profited from closing businesses and firing workers.
    5. (this is going to be a long list)…

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