Editor's note: Maria Cardona is a Democratic strategist, a principal at the Dewey Square Group, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and former communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
(CNN) -- There has been much speculation about whether the ads that President Barack Obama's campaign and its supporters have been running that are critical of Mitt Romney's tenure at Bain Capital will be effective. There is also lots of critiquing of the reasons and effectiveness of first lady Michelle Obama's appearances on talk shows and reality shows ("The Biggest Loser," "Late Show With David Letterman," "The Daily Show," etc.).
But something I saw last night indicates the Bain ads are starting to have an effect, and that women view Michelle Obama as a positive -- a conduit to the president.
I was invited to sit in remotely on two focus groups of so-called "Wal-Mart" moms in Richmond, Virginia, and Las Vegas. Both groups -- 23 women, in all -- were screened to ensure the moms were not strong partisans on either side, and most identified themselves as independents and undecided. The Las Vegas group was all Latinas.
It was a fascinating exercise that confirmed just how tight the presidential campaign will be. But what struck me most was that while Mitt Romney is still largely an unknown with these women -- and as such still has room and opportunity to define himself -- many of them said they did not like what they had heard described from ads about his time as head of Bain Capital.
They gave him kudos for being a businessman, saying that would be a good attribute for a president in creating jobs, but they also underscored what they had heard in the ads that had been running in their hometowns. They used phrases like "I heard that while he was the head of a company, many workers lost their jobs ..." "That scares me."
When asked to use one word or phrase to describe Romney, the words or phrases they used included "Don't know that much about him," "selfish, "businessman who is concerned with making himself some money," "concerned about the wealthy," "can't be trusted," "scares me," and "lackluster" -- again, echoing some of what is being said in the Bain ads around the country.
They did admire him for being a "good family man," and some of the women appreciated his corporate success but others followed up with "the country is more than a business ... a country has to take care of its people." Sound familiar?
Some also gave him credit for having passed a health care plan in Massachusetts, one he is now running away from on the campaign trail.
So while in the minds of many of these women, Mitt Romney is largely undefined, what they apparently do know and feel about him seems to echo those Bain ads -- and look to represent a beginning sketch of someone they cannot trust.
To be clear, these women were not in the tank for Obama -- but that was the whole point for the exercise to begin with. Many have been disappointed with his "lack of keeping his promises," and many said they haven't seen the change that he talked about so much in 2008.
When asked to use a word or phrase to describe Obama, they used "false promises," "not a lot of change," "big government." But by and large, the women in both of these groups would then follow up with phrases or explanations that would seem to indicate they understood just how difficult a situation he was handed when he came into office. Many stated "he can't do it in three years," or "he has been productive but he is hitting walls," and "he came into a big mess and has made some improvements."
It seemed very fertile ground for the Obama campaign to make the FDR argument also used by President George W. Bush 2004, the one about not changing horses midstream.
Based on their words, these women were most concerned about the economy, jobs and housing. And again, words associated with Romney, such as "concerned for the wealthy," seemed to indicate a disconnect with what families were struggling with.
Interestingly, neither group had any idea what the "gender gap" was. But as they were led in a conversation about issues important to women -- which were inextricably linked to the economy and concern for the health and future of their children -- women in both groups volunteered that Michelle Obama was someone to further the interests of women and their families. The president "listens to Michelle," they said.
Some in the Latina mom group went further and said that Michelle Obama's interests are their interests because she is a woman and a minority. And because of this, the president would make sure their interests are represented. In their eyes, she was them.
There is no doubt there are opportunities here for Romney to work on filling in the blanks, because there are many. But if the old adage is right, that in politics you need to define yourself before your opponent does, then the Romney campaign will need to more fully explain his time at Bain, including why he made millions even as he fired workers and closed companies, denying workers their health care and pensions.
Because right now, what has the potential to sink in is an image of Mitt Romney as head of Bain Capital. That, at least with this small sliver of moms in key battleground states, is one that scares them.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Maria Cardona