WASHINGTON – Relentless GOP criticism of a 12-day-old remark about business owners has taken a campaign toll on President Barack Obama, forcing him to defend himself and giving Republican Mitt Romney a break from steady attacks.
The development has delighted Republicans, who were eager to shift the campaign focus from Romney's tax returns, overseas assets and Bain Capital record.
Acknowledging that the Republican's criticisms were hitting a mark, Obama's team rolled out two new TV ads this week in which he employed for the first time what many Democrats consider a powerful tool: the president talking directly into the camera and countering GOP claims.
"Those ads taking my words about small business out of context — they're flat-out wrong," Obama says in the newest ad.
Democrats say the "direct-to-camera" format plays to the president's strength, and they don't think Romney can match it. But like any strategy deployed 15 weeks before Election Day, it might lose some of its impact over time.
In the immediate future, Democrats hope Obama's response will help him move past the flap about business owners. But Romney aides kept up the pressure Wednesday, sponsoring 24 events on the topic while Romney was overseas.
Democratic strategists acknowledged Wednesday that Obama was being hurt, at least a little, by Romney's repeated jabs at comments the president made in Virginia on July 13, which originally drew little notice.
"If you've got a business, you didn't build that," Obama said, in part. "Somebody else made that happen."
Most GOP attacks ignored the broader context of the speech. In it, Obama discussed a favorite theme: the claim that government-assisted infrastructure including roads, research and schools help sustain American society, including private enterprise.
Romney and his allies have used the quote in countless ads, videos, statements and conference calls, painting Obama as contemptuous of hard-working entrepreneurs and business owners.
It's a presidential topic so familiar that few reporters or Obama critics took note of the specific remarks for a few days.
"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help," Obama said in the July 13 speech. He cited teachers and mentors who helped "create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges."
"When we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together," he said.
Late on July 16, the Romney campaign began a drumbeat of attacks quoting only the line, "If you've got a business, you didn't build that."
Democrats responded cautiously at first. Eventually, aides began saying Obama's "that" referred to the infrastructure he cited elsewhere in the Virginia speech.
In an interview with a Florida TV station that aired Friday — a full week after the original remarks — Obama said: "What I said was, together we build roads and we build bridges...Anybody who actually watched the tape knows that was what I was referring to."
Obama had planned to address the matter more fully on Friday, aides say. But that day's mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater sidelined both campaigns for several days.
Still, Obama and his advisers realized the attacks were starting to hurt, and they filmed the 30-second response ad in the White House chief of staff's office on Saturday. In the ad, first aired Tuesday, Obama says: "Those ads taking my words about small business out of context — they're flat-out wrong. Of course Americans build their own businesses."
Obama also began to push back in his stump speech.
"Over the next four months, you are going to hear a lot of stuff," he said at a New Orleans fundraiser Wednesday evening. "Sometimes they will play around with things I say. They'll take out whole sentences. They've got an ad right now where they just spliced it and diced it and make it seem like I don't appreciate the incredible work of small businesspeople."
Romney and the Republican National Committee have since urged voters to review the entire speech. Their criticisms of Obama are fair and in context, they say.
Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod, referring to the first Romney ads about the "you didn't build that" quote, told MSNBC on Wednesday: "I was concerned when I saw the initial ad that it might be impactful. I've concluded that it's not all that impactful. But the ad that we did in response got a very good response in the testing that we did, because it pushes our message forward."
A Democratic strategist with ties to the campaign said Obama's team used focus groups, Web studies and other techniques to gauge the likely impact of Romney's attacks. No Obama campaign ads are aired without undergoing intense study, said the strategist, who would speak only on background in order to discuss private meetings.
Campaigns often use an opponent's remarks selectively, and then weather charges of taking the comments out of context. In January, some Democrats pounced when Romney told an audience, "I like being able to fire people." GOP aides said it was clear that Romney was referring to the right to seek the best providers of services such as insurance.
Romney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden said Wednesday that Obama's July 13 speech "crystalizes the differences" between the two candidates on how large and active the federal government should be. The lesson of the Republicans' 2010 election victories, he said, is that "Washington has to stop growing the size of government."
Obama aides said it's largely coincidental that his new 30-second ad looks much like a 60-second ad that was recorded some time ago but first aired Monday. Both were filmed in the White House chief of staff's office, and consist of the president speaking directly to viewers.
The 60-second ad, titled "The Choice," contains none of the defensiveness of the shorter one. It pursues the Obama campaign's oft-stated goal of framing the election as a choice between two visions of America more than as referendum on Obama's first term, which has been dogged by high unemployment.
"Over the next four months, you have a choice to make," Obama says in the ad. "Gov. Romney's plan would cut taxes for the folks at the very top. Roll back regulations on big banks. And he says that if we do that, our economy will grow and everyone will benefit." That approach has failed in the past, Obama says.
Romney's campaign shows no sign of letting up on the "you didn't build that" attacks. The president's comments made Florida business owner Lou Ramos "almost throw up," the campaign said Wednesday in announcing an event in Tampa featuring Ramos.
The Democratic National Committee responded with conference calls in which elected officials and small business owners denounced the "out-of-context attacks on the president."