FAIRVIEW PARK, Ohio — Strike up a conversation about Mitt Romney in this working-class suburb of Cleveland, and it's a good bet that it will quickly turn to Bain Capital.
President Obama's blistering indictment of his Republican challenger's career at the private equity firm has come to define Romney, interviews show, among swing voters here in one of the election's Great Lakes battlegrounds.
Television ads that Obama and his allies have aired on Cleveland stations for weeks have left some wondering how Romney earned up to $250 million at Bain and whether he caused the layoffs of Americans like themselves along the way.
Echoing the Obama ads, they also question why some of Romney's personal fortune wound up in Switzerland, Bermuda and the Cayman Islands.
"He should just surrender his tax returns and let the people see what he's done," said 50-year-old Kevin Cannon, a Fairview Park grocery store cashier who voted for Republicans George W. Bush and John McCain, but might reluctantly support a second term for Obama.
In an election dominated by the stalled economy, it is unclear whether doubts about Romney's business record will prove decisive for swing voters — or at least enough of them to matter. In Fairview Park, as elsewhere, questions about Romney could ultimately be overwhelmed by disappointment in Obama.
Still, conversations with more than two dozen voters in this swing area of a long-struggling manufacturing region show that at the very least, the Obama advertising has stoked concerns about a key matter: whether Romney would stand up for people like them.
They also underscore the strategic risk that Romney has taken by declining — until this week — to run ads that present any counter-narrative about his work at Bain, where he says he gained expertise in creating jobs.
Instead, Romney has been defensive, airing commercials calling Obama's allegations false, but otherwise staying focused on portraying the president as a failure on the economy.
The result is that the Fairview Park voters who are up for grabs, like Justin Fitch, have a mainly negative impression of Romney's record.
Fitch, 37, who will start work soon as a bar manager, described himself as "middle of the road," having voted for both Bush and Bill Clinton. He is leaning toward Obama now, and he mistrusts Romney.
"Something's a little shady there that the money's in offshore bank accounts and not in the U.S.," Fitch said between drags on a cigarette outside the town's Giant Eagle supermarket. "The Mafia, they used to have all the money in offshore accounts."
One of the Obama ads aired most often in Ohio last week showed Romney singing "America the Beautiful" as words flashing on-screen said he shipped jobs to China, India and Mexico while stashing millions of dollars in overseas accounts.
As Obama shifted to more positive ads on jobs, Priorities USA, a "super PAC" run by his supporters, kept firing away at Romney over his dealings at Bain.
It started airing a spot showing Indiana factory worker Mike Earnest saying he was ordered to build a stage that a Bain team used days later to announce the plant was closing and everyone was fired. "Turns out that when we built that stage, it was like building my own coffin, and it just made me sick," he says.
Romney's decision to forego advertising any positive alternative story about his business background has sparked worries among fellow Republicans.
"I think the mistake that they've made is feeling like it can just be a referendum on the president," Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, told MSNBC. Whatever voters ultimately conclude about Obama, he said, "there's got to be something more. People don't just vote somebody out. They've got to vote somebody in."
Romney and the Republican National Committee responded to such concerns Tuesday with a new ad that shows Romney taking the wheel of an SUV and chatting about his background while driving.
"My own experience was I got the chance to start my own business," he says in the ad. "I know what it's like to hire people and to wonder whether you're going to be able to make ends meet down the road."
Romney goes on to say that he cleaned up a scandal when he ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, and then worked with Democrats to cut spending when he was governor of Massachusetts.
Flashing on-screen is a testimonial from former President Clinton, an Obama surrogate who, in a decidedly off-message moment, is quoted saying that Romney "had a sterling business career."
In Fairview Park, just across the Rocky River from Cleveland's west side, there is some skepticism about whether Romney could really be as bad as the Obama attack ads suggest. Independent fact-checkers have shot down some of the allegations, such as Bain shipping jobs overseas.
Postal worker Stanley Stell, a sporadic voter who cast ballots for Republicans Ronald Reagan andGeorge H.W. Bush but also for Clinton and Obama, said Romney might well be a "robber baron" prone to rough business tactics. He might vote for Romney anyway because "the last few years haven't been too successful."
"When I look at Romney, I do see a businessman, and I do know business has to be successful in this country in order to generate jobs," he said.
Nonetheless, the attack ads hold the potential to inflict real damage in a stretch of northern Ohio that has suffered more than three decades of job losses as steel, rubber and auto plants have shut down. In search of work, thousands of residents have moved away, leaving behind closed schools and churches, even as Cleveland's bustling healthcare sector and a revived auto industry have afforded some measure of relief.
By and large, voters in the Cleveland area strongly favor Democrats. But with its dense population and scattered pockets of conservatives, it's also an important source of votes for Republicans in statewide races.
Fairview Park, home to 17,000 people and overwhelmingly white and middle class, is politically split. It backed George W. Bush for president in 2000, then switched to Democrat John F. Kerry in 2004 and Obama in 2008. But it supported Republican Gov. John Kasich in 2010.
Sally Adams, 61, a retiree who worked in marketing for a medical testing lab, is one of those who swung from Bush to Obama. To her, the allegation that Romney pocketed millions while cutting jobs rings true. Borrowing a phrase from an Obama ad, she called Romney a "corporate raider" and said the mystery of what's in his tax returns — beyond the one year already released — heightens her suspicion.
"It's like he's hiding something," she said on a visit to the Fairview Park library.
Others were less concerned. Matt Forcht, a 43-year-old contractor with specks of white paint on his blue T-shirt, voted for McCain and favors Romney now, notwithstanding what he has heard about him "tearing down businesses and shipping them overseas."
"Do I care that Romney shut a couple companies down 20 years ago?" he asked after loading groceries into his van at Giant Eagle. "I don't think it's the right thing to do. But at some point, business is business."
One in a series of occasional stories on the states that will determine the next president.