NEW YORK – President Barack Obama's campaign has been running television commercials that suggest Mitt Romney might be a tax cheat. Another ad uses a clip of the Republican singing an off-key rendition of "America the Beautiful" to ding him for having overseas bank accounts. Another Obama-sponsored spot states flatly: "Mitt Romney's not the solution. He's the problem."
So much for the promise of hope, change and bipartisan unity that propelled Obama to victory in 2008.
To win a second term, the Democrat who once pledged to usher in a more civilized political era has turned to highly critical commercials — at turns personal and snarky — to go toe to toe with Romney in a campaign noteworthy for its negativity and intensity. But Obama risks turning off voters who generally despise negative ads and undercutting what is arguably his greatest asset — his personal popularity — in a razor-thin race expected to be won in just a handful of competitive states.
There was never any doubt that Obama would run hard-hitting ads.
For one, he's proven to be a cut-throat campaigner, having assailed Sen. John McCain on TV four years ago even as he cultivated an image as someone who always played above-board politics. Democrats long have said Obama's best hopes for re-election may lie with disqualifying Romney given that the economy remains sluggish and the country is divided over or outright opposes some of the president's signature policies, like the health care law.
The president seemed to acknowledge his campaign's gamble in one of his newest TV ads.
"Sometimes politics can seem very small," Obama says, as he speaks reassuringly into the camera.
To be sure, Romney and the conservative-leaning independent groups that support his candidacy aren't blameless in the negative ad campaign, having run plenty of spots scorching Obama as incompetent, hostile to business and overly wedded to government intervention. Those ads are consistent with Romney's general strategy of making the race a referendum on the president's record and not building up Romney's own credibility and popularity.
It's a blueprint that worked for Romney during the Republican primaries, where he became the likely presidential nominee by vanquishing his rivals with negative ads but at a cost to how voters viewed him. An Associated Press-GfK survey taken in April after Romney emerged as the apparent nominee found Obama was viewed more positively than Romney by 58-43 percent.
In the general election, polling shows Obama still has a broad advantage over Romney in what pollsters call "likability." The gap is a major reason the race has remained competitive despite the slow economic recovery and persistently high unemployment. A USA Today/Gallup Poll released Tuesday found 60 percent of voters see Obama as likable, compared to just 30 percent for Romney.
"If Barack Obama's re-election were just a matter of people liking him better than Mitt Romney, the election would be over and Obama would be cruising to victory," says Quinnipiac University pollster Peter Brown. "The question instead is whether they want him running the country for the next four years."
Obama advisers say they have little choice but to assail Romney in ads, both to raise questions about the former Massachusetts governor's finances and business dealings and to deflect attention from the president's stewardship of the economy. The campaign's ad spending has totaled about $100 million so far, most of it on negative ads. Democratic independent groups, led by Priorities USA Action, have kicked in another $20 million for advertising, almost all of it trashing Romney.
To that end, the Obama campaign has sought to make Romney an unacceptable alternative, focusing its ads on the conduct of Romney's former private equity firm Bain Capital and secrets surrounding his vast wealth.
In May, Obama ran heart-tugging ads in crucial states featuring workers who had lost their jobs at companies Bain Capital had bought and managed.
"It was like a vampire. They came in and sucked the life out of us," said Jack Cobb, a steelworker featured in the ad.
The Obama team later focused on outsourcing, pointing to companies Bain Capital had invested in that carried out some work overseas.
"As a corporate raider, he shipped jobs to China and Mexico. As governor, he did the same thing," said one Obama commercial.
Next came criticism of Romney's finances.
"Tax havens, offshore accounts, carried interest. Romney's used every trick in the book," another Obama ad says, chiding Romney for refusing to release more of his income tax returns. His reluctance to do so "makes you wonder if some years he paid any taxes at all," the ad says, offering no evidence to support that claim.
Sara Fagen, a Republican strategist who was White House political director under George W. Bush, predicted that Obama's shift in tone from four years ago could depress turnout among young people and other constituencies he'll need in a close race.
"His only path to victory is slash and burn, but it flies in the face of his messaging in 2008," Fagen said. "Voters think he's a good guy, he's a good family man. But when the campaign is as negative as it is, it gives them reason to believe he's just another politician."
Bush's successful 2004 re-election campaign made a similar calculation against Democrat John Kerry, running a heavy level of negative ads against the Massachusetts senator immediately after he locked up his party's nomination that spring. The Bush campaign got a key assist from Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, an independent group that ran ads questioning Kerry's military record.
Bush, like Obama, had been elected on a promise to bring partisan factions together but saw his job approval rating sag during the unpopular war in Iraq. His re-election calculation proved successful. He defeated Kerry by a 51-48 margin, carrying most major swing states.
Bob Shrum, a Democratic strategist who oversaw Kerry's campaign, said Obama could not rest on a good guy image. Shrum said the strategy the campaign is following is effective.
"If people thought the ads were out of bounds or about something that wasn't fair or relevant, it would be a different story. But they don't think that at all," Shrum said, adding: "'Obama the positive uniter' is not in the cards at this point."
Associated Press Deputy Polling Director Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.
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