Team Obama went after Mitt Romney on his home turf Thursday, criticizing his tenure as governor of Massachusetts from the steps of the State House and in a video that features local Democrats taking apart Mr. Romney’s record.
Struggling to be heard over protesters at the State House event, top Obama strategist David Axelrod cast Romney's record in the harshest possible terms. Under Romney, Mr. Axelrod said, Massachusetts was 47th in the nation in job creation, manufacturing jobs vanished at twice the national rate, and household incomes fell.
“You can shout down speakers but it’s hard to Etch-a-Sketch the truth away,” Axelrod said.
Supporters for both campaigns gave the event a carnival-like atmosphere. Obama supporters carried signs saying “Romney Economics: It Didn’t Work Then, It Won’t Work Now,” a line Axelrod repeated in his remarks. The pro-Romney supporters shouted “We want Mitt!” and “Solyndra! Solyndra!” – a reference to the solar manufacturer that received more than $500 million in loan guarantees authorized by the Obama administration, only to go bankrupt. In a bit of counterprogramming Thursday, Romney criticized Obama’s energy policies from the steps of the shuttered Solyndra plant in Fremont, Calif.
Axelrod offered a wholly negative interpretation of the Romney years and ignored what he might have called the former governor’s one bright spot: enactment of a health-care reform that became the model for Obama’s national legislation. When Romney ran for governor in 2002, Axelrod said, he brought “the orientation of a financial engineer” that was all about making short-term profits. The result, he said, was poor job creation and an increase in taxes and debt.
He also called Romney a “drive-by governor” on his way to a run for the presidency.
For their part, Republicans paint a more positive picture of the Romney administration, arguing that he took office amid a down economy, following the burst of the dotcom bubble, and faced a heavily Democratic legislature – and yet still managed to preside over a reduction in the unemployment rate. Democrats counter that unemployment went down because workers gave up, and some left the state.
The Obama campaign’s focus on Romney’s Massachusetts tenure represented a pivot away from the carpet-bombing of Romney’s time as CEO of Bain Capital, a private-equity firm. Republicans argue Team Obama is simply throwing dirt wherever it can, in the hopes that some of it sticks. The challenge for Romney, they say, is to explain all the underlying factors marking his time as governor.
“Romney has to say, ‘I inherited a mess in the Bay State like the companies we turned around at Bain and I improved the situation,’ ” says Republican strategist Ford O’Connell. “That is the Bain tie-in. Obama doesn't want voters to make that causal link.”
It’s telling that Obama has gone so negative in this opening round of the general-election campaign, he says. “It indicates that they know they are in trouble,” says Mr. O’Connell. “And it is cutting into the one item that Obama has a clear advantage on – likability.”
The latest ABC News/Washington Post poll shows Romney still trailing Obama on favorability, but he has closed the gap, as Romney has gained among women and Obama’s popularity has slipped. Obama still beats Romney on favorability by 11 points, 52 percent to 41 percent, but last month the gap was 21 points.
The video released Thursday by the Obama campaign featured seven state lawmakers and mayors, all Democrats, with nary a kind word for the former governor.
“I had worked only under Republican governors,” said state Rep. Jay Kaufman of Lexington, Mass. “There was really not much working with Mitt Romney.”
The Obama campaign also dispatched Romney’s successor, Gov. Deval Patrick, to morning cable shows Thursday to double down on the attacks. But the headline was more an echo of Newark Mayor Cory Booker, who flunked recently as an Obama surrogate when he criticized the campaign’s attacks on Bain. Appearing on MSNBC”s “Morning Joe,” Governor Patrick called Bain “a perfectly fine company.”
Later Thursday morning, at the Massachusetts State House, two Republican state representatives pre-butted the Axelrod appearance.
“The beautiful thing about the contrast here today with Governor Romney and President Obama is that it’s an apples to apples comparison,” said state Rep. Dan Winslow, according to CNN. “Both men took office as chief executives in a time of recession, in a time of downturn in the economy, [and] look at the track record both men have to show for it.”
• Mike Eckel contributed to this report from Boston.