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Obama seizes lead in race to define Romney

Hours after revealing his choice of Rep. Paul D. Ryan as his running mate, Mitt Romney slammed President Obama for running his reelection campaign “down in the dirt.” The race, he said, could now focus on serious issues.

By selecting the Wisconsin congressman, who leads the Republican Party’s drive for tax cuts for all — including the wealthiest — and dramatic spending reductions, Romney ensured a robust debate on sharply contrasting visions for America’s future.

But by intensifying the brawl over taxes, Romney also gave Obama an opening to step up his attacks on Romney’s record at the investment firm that made him wealthy and his placement of millions of dollars in tax havens overseas.

In ads airing heavily in states most likely to decide the election, the president is already weaving those attacks into a larger case against Romney on the economy — and, more important, against the Republican fiscal agenda championed by none other than Ryan.

PHOTOS: Romney selects Paul Ryan

“You work hard, stretch every penny,” an announcer says in a new Obama ad about Romney. “But chances are you pay a higher tax rate than him. Mitt Romney made $20 million in 2010, but paid only 14% in taxes — probably less than you.” The ad says Romney wants to “give millionaires another tax break and raise taxes on middle-class families,” which Romney denies. “He pays less, you pay more,” the ad says.

The potency of Obama’s attacks is best measured by Romney’s response. He recently hired corporate crisis PR specialist Michele Davis to mount an aggressive defense. He told NBC that he wanted a pact with Obama to stop attack ads on such subjects as “business or family or taxes.” And Romney told Fox News that his “biggest challenge is making sure that my message is able to break through all the clutter that comes from the Obama team.”

Romney’s selection of Ryan is by far the candidate’s most important move to address that challenge, even if its potential effectiveness is open to debate. Obama’s campaign has pounced on Ryan’s candidacy to amplify its message that the Republican’s proposals favor wealthy taxpayers like Romney over the middle class.

On ABC’s"This Week"on Sunday, Obama campaign strategist David Axelrod called Ryan a right-wing ideologue who “constructed a budget that, like Romney, would lavish trillions of dollars of tax cuts, most of them on the wealthy.”

Strategists in both parties say Romney made a serious error in neglecting to respond quickly to Obama ads trashing his record as the leader of Bain Capital, the Boston investment firm that he founded. The millions of dollars spent by presidential candidates on TV advertising in battleground states can be hugely influential with voters, and Romney gave Obama a three-month head start in defining him.

“In those voters’ minds, they’re starting to fill in — choosing colors from the palette — who Romney is, and the Romney campaign didn’t offer them any colors to choose from,” said John Weaver, who was a top advisor to Republican John McCain, the 2008 nominee. “I don’t think it’s been wise to wait this long to deal with it.”

Over the last two weeks, Romney has started running spots sketching his own biography.

One new Romney ad says he started a business, ran the 2002 Winter Olympics and slashed spending as governor of Massachusetts. Another tells viewers that Romney “shares your values” and sided with the Roman Catholic Church in a controversy over contraception. Both spots show Romney with his wife, Ann.

Beyond the advertising, the Republican National Convention in Florida will soon give Romney a prime-time forum to tell the story of who he is.

A top advisor said the initial omission of Romney’s personal story was just a matter of timing.

“We are very methodically telling people what a Romney presidency would be like, and who Mitt Romney is,” said Stuart Stevens, Romney’s chief strategist. “It will be a balance of the policy and the personal, the emotional and the fact-driven.”

John F. Kerry, President George W. Bush’s Democratic challenger, faced a similar circumstance in 2004, with early-summer ads undercutting his military credentials in the weeks leading up to his nominating convention.

Bob Shrum, who was Kerry’s top campaign advisor, said Romney’s failure to start telling his life story while Obama’s team was assailing his business record would make it harder to accomplish now.

“ ‘Successful businessman’ will convey something different than it would have conveyed two or three months ago,” Shrum said. “People are seeing it against the backdrop of all of the other information they have absorbed.”

During the Republican primaries, rivals Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry pounded Romney for the same sort of factory job losses that are featured in the Obama ads. Then, unlike now, Romney responded by highlighting his successes in corporate takeover deals, running a spot saying he helped build Staples and Sports Authority into successful businesses.

Romney has also avoided mentioning the important place that religion has played in his life, apparently out of fear of stoking prejudice against his Mormon faith. A new Romney ad shows him paying tribute to Pope John Paul II. It opens with the line, “Who shares your values?” and accuses Obama of waging a “war on religion” by requiring the insurance plans of religious institutions, such as Catholic hospitals and schools but not churches, to cover contraception for their employees. (Ryan, Romney’s new running mate, is Catholic.)

As for the Obama ads, the president has rolled them out in a sequence that has gradually built a negative story line on Romney in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire and a few other campaign battlegrounds.

The ad strategy is a classic one for an embattled incumbent trying to disqualify a challenger. In California, it worked in 2002 for Gray Davis, a highly unpopular Democratic governor who won reelection by waging a scorching ad assault against Republican challenger Bill Simon, who like Romney was running on business credentials.

“You have to construct a narrative with various spots with different messages feeding into the same theme,” said Garry South, who ran the Davis campaign, “so at the end of the day, you’ve not just dropped a bomb on people, but told a story with supporting evidence and corroboration from different sources.”

michael.finnegan@latimes.com

Times staff writer Seema Mehta in North Carolina contributed to this report.


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