CHILLICOTHE, Ohio — For months, Mitt Romney has hammered President Obama’s handling of the economy, believing that the Democrat’s stewardship would convince Americans it was time for change.
Then, with the announcement of his running mate Saturday, Romney ushered in several days focused on the size and scope of government, and on Republican plans to dramatically curb its reach. On Tuesday night, with a forceful new speech, Romney appeared to be taking aim at the trait that has buttressed Obama the most even in the rockiest of times — his relative likability.
Wrapping up a battleground state bus tour that started with his selection of Rep. Paul D. Ryanof Wisconsin, Romney unveiled a sweeping and bitter denunciation of Obama, accusing him of demeaning the office of the presidency and resorting to divisive campaign tactics that cheapen political discourse.
“He’s intellectually exhausted, out of ideas, and out of energy. And so his campaign has resorted to diversions and distractions, to demagoguing and defaming others,” Romney said. “It’s an old game in politics; what’s different this year is that the president is taking things to a new low.”
Romney was irked Tuesday by a comment by Vice President Joe Biden that Romney’s banking policies would put Americans “back in chains.” Earlier, he and his campaign had been angered by a top Obama official saying that Romney may have committed a felony and by an ad from Obama supporters that suggested he was complicit in the death of a woman whose husband was laid off by Bain Capital, the private equity firm he founded. (The woman died years after the layoff.)
That ad is but one component in an increasingly contentious tit-for-tat between the candidates; for their parts, Obama and his supporters have been angered by an ad that inaccurately accused the president of going soft on welfare recipients.
The speech Tuesday, which aides said was written by Romney, marked a more forceful turn by the candidate.
In part, Romney was seeking to take advantage of the turn in Obama’s strategy over the last four years — from the hope-and-change candidate of 2008 optimistic about bridging partisan divisions to the president going after Romney as relentlessly as Romney himself dispatched his primary opponents. Obama has become, Romney said, what he once railed against.
Romney had long insisted that the campaign would be waged on the economy and the nation’s historically high unemployment rate. But after a rocky summer, and stuck narrowly behind Obama in most polls, the unofficial GOP nominee selected Ryan as his running mate. Ryan is the author of a controversial House budget plan whose central facet — restructuring Medicare — is unpopular with voters.
The move switched the focus from a referendum on Obama’s handling of the economy to one waged over the distinctions between the president’s view of government and the Republican position — the sort of election that Obama has coveted. But Romney seemed to suggest Tuesday that he needed not only to shake up his own campaign but also to puncture voters’ persistently upbeat views of Obama, which stand in contrast to Romney’s relative unpopularity.
“Over the last four years, this president has pushed Republicans and Democrats about as far apart as they can go. And now he and his allies are pushing us all even further apart by dividing us into groups. He demonizes some. He panders to others,” Romney said. “His campaign strategy is to smash America apart and then try to cobble together 51% of the pieces.”
For good measure, there was more: “Mr. President, take your campaign of division and anger and hate back to Chicago, and let us get about rebuilding and reuniting America.”
So far in the campaign, Romney’s remarks have tended to be littered with anecdotes of people he’s met who illustrate his positions. The result is sometimes effective but sometimes disjointed. The speech Tuesday featured no such stories, just a forceful response to Obama that Democrats branded grossly hypocritical.
“Gov. Romney’s comments tonight seemed unhinged, and particularly strange coming at a time when he’s pouring tens of millions of dollars into negative ads that are demonstrably false,” said Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.