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Early attacks signal a nasty presidential race

By Tom Cohen, CNN
updated 3:02 PM EDT, Fri May 25, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • President Obama, Mitt Romney are in full assault mode five months before the election
  • The tight race and super-PAC ads contribute to the early negative campaigning
  • Each candidate wants to gain the upper hand now, an analyst says
  • Strong fundraising and super-PAC support brings more early advertising

Washington (CNN) -- Poll results and strong fundraising portend a tight presidential election in November. The rising heat of political rhetoric by the candidates and their surrogates guarantees it will be nasty and brutal.

President Barack Obama has ratcheted up his criticism of certain Republican opponent Mitt Romney, using a campaign speech Thursday in Iowa to accuse the former Massachusetts governor of a "cow pie of distortion" about the records of both men.

At the same time, Obama kept up his attack on Romney's background in private equity, saying it focused on the business objective of maximizing profit but lacked perception of what's best for the country as a whole.

"The challenge we face right now -- the challenge we've faced for over a decade -- is that harder work hasn't led to higher incomes. Bigger profits haven't led to better jobs," Obama said. "And you can't solve that problem if you can't even see that it's a problem. And he doesn't see it's a problem."

Tight race in battle ground states

That's in response to mantra-like assaults by Romney that Obama's policies have failed and he broke promises to the American people on cutting the deficit and creating jobs.

"This president has failed the American people with policies that have not put America back to work, and I think the American people recognize not only is he responsible for a tepid recovery, he is responsible for putting America on a track which does not lead to a stronger, more robust economy long-term either," Romney said in an interview this week with Time magazine.

While the topics of attack are no surprise, the harsh and direct nature of the rhetoric more than five months before votes get cast shows the campaign accelerating in a mean-spirited direction.

Sitting presidents typically don't directly engage their re-election opponent before the nomination has been secured, leaving the task to the vice president and other surrogates.

With Romney certain to clinch the GOP nomination this summer, and both the candidate and the entire Republican machine including congressional leaders, the Republican National Committee and supporting super-PACs fully trained on Obama, the president and his supporters have fully joined the fray.

A combination of the tight race, super-PAC funding and the political divisiveness of the country contributes to the sharp early edge.

"The campaign has gotten nasty earlier than typically is the case," noted Darrell West, director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. "I'm expecting it be a nasty campaign, so that it started negative kind of confirms the type of campaign we're going to see."

West cited the closeness of the race and the proliferation of super-PACs spending millions on advertising at such an early stage as reasons for the initial negative tone.

"I think what's unique to this race is it's going to be a close and competitive race that will come down to 10,000-20,000 votes in eight or nine states, and so any way they can gain an advantage, they're going to use it," he said.

In addition, the campaigns and super-PACs supporting them have more money to spend than usual, allowing for a steady wave of attack ads instead of holding back for a blitz closer to the vote.

"If you have money, you can spend early and late," West said, noting that the campaigns and super-PACs -- while legally forbidden from working together -- manage to coordinate messaging. "They work hand in glove even though there's little formal coordination."

With polls showing the two candidates statistically even nationally, both sides seek to gain the upper hand early to try to influence outcomes in battleground states such as Ohio, Florida, Iowa, Colorado, New Hampshire, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Nevada, according to West.

"Oftentimes candidates save their best material for the last month, when the undecided voters are making up their minds," he said. "I think this year, each side is trying to win the race early. If they can set the tone six months before the general election, they can knock out the other person early."

To that end, Obama's campaign is focusing on Romney's years at Bain Capital, a private equity firm, challenging the Romney assertion that his experience as a businessman better qualified him to deal with economic issues than the president.

The tactic carries some risk, as Republicans and some fellow Democrats call it an attack on legitimate capitalism.

Borger: Will Obama's Bain attacks backfire?

In Iowa on Thursday, Obama carefully acknowledged that private equity was an acceptable and important part of the U.S. economy, but he argued it focused on making money rather than the common good.

"Their main goal is to create wealth for themselves and their investors. That's part of the American way. That's fine," Obama said, adding that "sometimes, jobs are created in that process."

Sometimes, however, it "goes the other way," the president continued, listing outcomes such as layoffs, pension and benefit cuts, darkened factories and bankrupt companies while "investors walk off with big returns, and working folks get stuck holding the bag."

Such a result "may be the job of somebody who's engaged in corporate buyouts. That's fine. But that's not the job of a president," Obama said to applause. "There may be value for that kind of experience, but it's not in the White House."

Obama's surrogates are more direct.

At Bain, Romney "was the puppeteer and people lost their jobs because of his decisions and creditors never got paid because of his decisions, and he and his partners made hundreds of millions of dollars at the expense of those individuals and creditors," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who heads the Democratic National Committee, told CNN on Friday. "That's what he says is the reason we should elect him."

Romney and his supporters, meanwhile, say such attacks by Obama and Democrats are an effort to defect attention from what they called the president's failed record. They cite Obama's 2008 campaign pledges to halve the deficit in his first term as examples of such failure.

"A president who broke his promise to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term has no standing when it comes to fiscal responsibility," Romney's spokesman Ryan Williams said in a statement in response to the Obama's cow pie attack.

Such rhetoric fits the "win now" strategy described by West.

"If Obama can frame Romney as an uncaring job killer, he wins, and if Romney can persuade people Obama is over his head, he wins," West said. "I'm sure they have good material for later on. What they're trying to do now is frame the themes."

CNN's Becky Brittain contributed to this report.

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