Both Campaigns Seize on Romney’s Years at Bain

Ashley Parker|The New York Times

Mitt Romney’s campaign sees the time he spent at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded and ran for more than a decade, as a positive experience that highlights his leadership skills and his ability to turn around companies and create jobs.

Barack Obama and Mitt Romney
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President Obama’s campaign, meanwhile, views Mr. Romney’s Bain Capital years as a political liability that underscores his image as an out-of-touch multimillionaire, concerned only with turning profits for his wealthy investors.

For Mr. Romney’s campaign, the scrutiny of his time at Bain poses a delicate challenge: not only must he defend himself against attacks coming from the president, but he also must try to cast Bain and the lessons he learned there as a testament to his management skills.

Gearing up to confront the attacks, the Romney campaign is actively recruiting testimonials from workers who have had positive experiences with Bain  It is getting ready to release advertising highlighting Bain’s marquee success stories, like the turnaround of Staples.

It is considering seeking out middle-class surrogates — a fireman or members of a teachers union, for instance — who would be willing to talk about how Bain managed and increased the size of their pension funds, a lesser-known aspect of private equity. And, repeating a strategy that worked well for the campaign in the nominating contests, it is hoping Mr. Obama’s attacks backfire, painting him as an enemy of free enterprise and capitalism.

“When things are just factually inaccurate, we’ll point those out, but we’ll continue to point out that Bain was successful because it helped grow companies, and that meant more people having work,” said Ed Gillespie, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign.

Although the Romney campaign plans to argue that Mr. Romney created jobs during his time at Bain, the proposition is a tricky one; the driving force of private equity is to create profits for investors, and while job creation may be a happy byproduct of corporate turnarounds, it is never the stated goal, and jobs cuts are very often a consequence, too.

Mr. Romney’s advisers are betting that if they stay out of the nuances of private equity and tell a story about turning around failing companies, they can transform the Bain attacks into a narrative that underscores Mr. Romney’s image as a skilled executive who can steer a troubled economy back to prosperity. A senior aide said that the campaign’s internal polling showed that the more voters learned about Bain — or the pro-Romney version of Bain, at least — the more likely they were to favor Mr. Romney over the president.

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“I think he’ll continue to describe it in very understandable terms, about creating jobs, which they did, about turning things around, which they did, and about believing in the American dream and the American worker and American innovation,” said Kent Lucken, a Romney adviser. “Mitt Romney is someone who can bring those practices into government, in terms of making America more competitive. American competitiveness, in terms of competing with China, sits very well with the Bain narrative.”

Mr. Romney’s private equity years have been a challenge to him since the moment he jumped into the political fray in a bid to unseat Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts in 1994. For that campaign, Mr. Kennedy unleashed ads featuring disgruntled workers at American Pad & Paper, a company that cut factory jobs and slashed wages under Bain’s ownership.

Mr. Romney’s team knew heading into this race that Bain would probably crop up again as an issue, and the campaign has done its own exhaustive research into his Bain years to portray them in the best possible light.

When the Obama campaign unveiled its first private equity attack ad last week, featuring GST Steel, a company that filed for bankruptcy under Bain’s watch (but after Mr. Romney had left the company), the Romney campaign was ready with a video spot of its own, highlighting grateful workers at Steel Dynamics, a company in Indiana that Bain helped grow.

But for all its preparation and forewarning, the Romney campaign — famous for its message discipline and single-strategy approach toward problems — has yet to settle on a clear, overarching way to handle the Bain criticism that is certain to come.

One campaign adviser said that aides were somewhat split over how to respond to the president’s attacks. Some believe that the campaign should reply by simply highlighting the benefits of private equity and mock Democrats who attack the industry. Others are pushing for a more aggressive approach that forcefully embraces Mr. Romney’s 15 years at Bain, with advertising that features successes like Staples and the Sports Authority.

The Romney team also plans to attack Mr. Obama over Solyndra, the solar-panel company that filed for bankruptcy after receiving millions in taxpayer loans. And they say that the Bain attacks from Mr. Obama simply help them paint Mr. Obama as anti-business and pivot the debate toward the economy, more comfortable ground for Mr. Romney.

“We’re happy to compare Governor Romney’s record of success both at the Statehouse in Massachusetts and as a businessman for 25 years in the private sector to the lack of real world economy experience of President Obama,” said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney adviser, in a conference call with reporters Wednesday.

The Romney campaign has also gotten help from some unlikely quarters: namely, the Democrats. When asked how Mr. Romney was going to respond to attacks on Bain, Matt Rhoades, the campaign manager, pointed to a list of Democrats including the Newark mayor, Cory Booker, and a former Pennsylvania governor, Ed Rendell, who have seemed to criticize Mr. Obama’s initial attacks. “We like how they are responding,” Mr. Rhoades said in an e-mail message.