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For Romney, stressing business prowess may be risky strategy

Published: Monday, April 16, 2012 10:17 a.m. CDT

LOS ANGELES (MCT) — As Democrats launch their general election assault on Mitt Romney, their approach has sounded familiar to those who followed the meteoric rise and fall of Carly Fiorina and Meg Whitman, corporate chieftains who lost their Republican bids for senator and governor in California two years ago.

Much as Fiorina and Whitman emphasized their business experience, Romney’s presidential campaign has presented him to voters as the man to tackle the nation’s economic problems because of his grasp, as he likes to say, of “why jobs come and why they go.”

When Romney was struggling to capture the Republican nomination, President Barack Obama and his strategists seemed content to let his Republican opponents challenge that image — most notably with an ominous film financed by a Republican “super PAC” that cast Romney as a corporate raider who pursued profits while slashing jobs at the private equity firm Bain Capital.

But Obama weighed into that debate earlier this month — criticizing Romney by name for embracing a Republican budget plan that the president said amounted to “thinly veiled social Darwinism” favoring the wealthiest Americans over working families.

In a subtle aside, he poked at Romney’s privileged circumstances by noting that the likely GOP nominee had used the word “marvelous” to describe the plan by Wisconsin Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin — “a word,” the president noted archly, that “you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget” and “a word you don’t often hear generally.”

The president’s lines echoed attacks used against Fiorina and Whitman — who were painted by Democrats as out of touch because of their wealth and top-flight business careers. On countless occasions, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., mentioned Fiorina’s yachts almost in the same breath as the layoffs Fiorina ordered as Hewlett-Packard Co.’s chief executive. In the race for governor, Jerry Brown repeatedly accused Whitman, the billionaire and former eBay chief executive, of trying to buy the election, and her professional performance was dissected throughout.

Obama’s allusion to Romney’s background was no accident. At a recent breakfast in Washington, Obama pollster Joel Benenson mentioned the Whitman and Fiorina races when asked whether the Obama team viewed any 2010 contests as models for this year’s campaign. In California, Benenson said, “You had two people who ran on their business experience, spent a boatload of money … and lost — in a state that has elected Republicans.”

Romney, Benenson continued, “had no qualms about bankrupting companies” and “walking away with millions of dollars.” While voters may not object to his success and his resulting wealth, the perception that he is “not in touch with the struggles of ordinary Americans” will be used against him, the pollster said. (To blunt such assertions, Romney has already launched his own line of attack accusing Obama of being out of touch — a member of what he described as the “extraordinary elite.”)

There are distinctions between the races. California’s Democratic edge meant both women started with a disadvantage — though their genders countered that to some extent. And a national campaign is far more complex than a state race, even in a place as diverse and wide-ranging as California.

Still, political strategists see lessons in the defeats. Fiorina lost by 10 percentage points, even though Boxer’s approval rating was at an all-time low. Whitman lost to Brown by an even larger margin, 13 points, after spending $144 million of her own money.

Boxer pollster Mark Mellman noted that, as with Romney, voters initially were receptive to the business experience of both women, particularly Fiorina’s arc of working her way up from the secretarial pool to run HP. But that perception changed as Boxer’s campaign pummeled her with television ads that juxtaposed outsourcing and layoffs under her watch at HP with her lifestyle. “Outsourcing jobs, out for herself,” the tag line of one ad read.

“We turned what was her greatest strength into her greatest weakness,” Mellman said.

Fiorina and Whitman declined requests to talk about the lessons of 2010, but strategists for both Republicans said the attacks could have been brushed aside better with explanations to voters of how the two women had improved people’s lives in their corporate careers. That is a challenge that lies ahead for Romney.

The Boxer campaign, Fiorina campaign manager Marty Wilson said, did “a very good job of defining Carly — even though none of this was true — as a coldhearted businesswoman who was going to do what it takes to advance her cause.”

When pressed about the controversial decisions she made at HP, Fiorina often argued that layoffs were necessary to save the company and pointed to HP’s successes after she left. Just as quickly, she would shift the discussion back to Boxer’s record. That was in part because her strategists had decided to keep the focus on Boxer’s record rather than defend Fiorina’s tenure at HP.

“In this age of sound bites, explaining the fundamentals of the American economy and how it overlays the global economy is a lot more complicated than ‘This person did a bad thing to send jobs out of the country,’ ” said former Fiorina advisor Beth Miller. “It’s a lot easier to make the businessman the bogeyman for what’s wrong.”

The drawn-out Republican primary has already given voters a glimpse of the more aggressive Romney strategy. When a super PAC backing Newt Gingrich released the film “King of Bain: When Mitt Romney came to town” in January, Romney’s communication operatives fired off fact-checking reports from various news organizations, including a Wall Street Journal story in which three workers who had been portrayed as being laid off because of Bain’s actions said that claim was inaccurate.

After then-candidate Rick Perry called Romney’s brand of business “vulture” capitalism, the Romney campaign leaned on surrogates and conservative leaders to take his rivals to task for being “anti-business.”

Romney’s general election challenge will be to rebut the negative stories about thousands of job cuts during his tenure at Bain with positive stories about companies that he helped launch or turn around. Romney failed to make the affirmative case in his 1994 Senate campaign against Edward M. Kennedy, whose campaign focused attention on Bain’s layoffs.

As with Whitman and Fiorina, both sides will argue over how many “net jobs” were created in the candidate’s business endeavors. “But whatever the number is, he’s got a story to tell,” former Whitman strategist Rob Stutzman said.

Stutzman argued that Romney may have an easier time contrasting his record with Obama’s than the California Republicans had with their Democratic opponents.

“Romney can put some compelling people to camera who say, ‘I voted for this guy four years ago because I believed in it all and he hasn’t delivered,’ ” he said. “To the swing vote — that’s the proposition. That’s where the whole election is won and lost.”

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