WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is casting Mitt Romney as a greedy, job-killing corporate titan with little concern for the working class in a new, multipronged effort that seeks to undermine the central rationale for his Republican rival's candidacy: his business credentials.
At the center of the push — the president's most forceful attempt yet to sully Romney before the November election — is a biting new TV ad released Monday that recounts through interviews with former workers the restructuring, and ultimate demise, of a Kansas City steel mill under the Republican's private equity firm.
"They made as much money off of it as they could. And they closed it down," says Joe Soptic, a steelworker for 30 years. Jack Cobb, who also worked in the industry for three decades, adds: "It was like a vampire. They came in and sucked the life out of us."
The ad, at the unusual length of two minutes, will run in five battleground states — Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Colorado — and is part of a larger $25 million, monthlong ad campaign. Republican officials tracking the ad buy said the Obama team was only airing the two-minute spot Wednesday in the five states. The ad was expected to air during the evening news and direct viewers to an Obama website about Romney's economic record and a longer, six-minute version of the ad appearing online.
Romney campaign officials said they welcome any discussion about jobs. "Mitt Romney helped create more jobs in his private-sector experience and more jobs as governor of Massachusetts than President Obama has for the entire nation," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement.
The commercial will be coupled with a series of events Obama's campaign is holding this week in Florida, Missouri, Iowa, Nevada and North Carolina to highlight Romney's role at Bain Capital, a company he co-founded. Deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said in a call with reporters that Obama's team would highlight Romney's Bain record "during next few weeks."
Romney's campaign was aggressively working behind the scenes to counter the Obama campaign's Bain message, dispatching senior campaign strategist Ed Gillespie to a conference call with conservative bloggers Monday to refute the ad. Romney's campaign planned to frame the attacks on his record at Bain as an "attack on free enterprise," and to cast the auto bailout as an example of private equity at work.
"He's now been a venture capitalist at Solyndra, Fisker, Tesla; and he's been a private equity guy at General Motors and Chrysler. So I'll be talking about his record when I'm facing him," Romney said of Obama while campaigning earlier this year.
It's unclear whether Obama, himself, will criticize his Republican rival on the subject when the president appears at events in New York on Monday or whether he'll leave the skewering to campaign surrogates as he prepares to meet with foreign leaders during the G-8 and NATO summits later this week.
At least one Obama surrogate, Vice President Joe Biden, holds two days of events this week in Ohio, where he's expected to discuss Romney's role as a corporate buyout specialist.
Romney previously had accused Obama of attacking free enterprise and called the criticism of his business background an attempt by Democrats to distract voters from the president's record.
Both candidates were entering a new week in the campaign seeking to shift the focus back to voters' No. 1 issue, the economy, from social issues that dominated after the president announced his support for gay marriage.
The two campaigns contend that in a nation where unemployment is hovering around 8 percent, voters will choose between Obama and Romney based on economic arguments. Obama is trying to convince voters to stick with him as he heralds an economic rebound, as sluggish as it is. Romney counters that Obama has had enough time, and only he — with his deep background in business — knows how to jumpstart the nation's job market.
Obama, hosting his first campaign rally this month in Columbus, Ohio, gave a preview of the new line of attack, saying Romney had "drawn the wrong lessons" from his business experience at the helm of Bain.
"He doesn't seem to understand that maximizing profits by whatever means necessary — whether through layoffs or outsourcing or tax avoidance or union-busting — might not always be good for the average American or for the American economy," Obama said then.
Romney, a multimillionaire, left Bain in 1999 to run the Salt Lake City Olympic Games but maintained a financial interest in the company after departing. He has said that his firm had a strong overall track record, creating jobs in prominent companies like Staples and Sports Authority, while acknowledging that some companies Bain invested in were unsuccessful.
Obama's new ad, which reprises criticism leveled at Romney during the Republican primaries, focuses on one of those unsuccessful companies, GST Steel.
Bain was the majority shareholder in GST Steel beginning in 1993. The company eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2001, a period in which the U.S. steel industry was roiled by a flood of cheap steel imports. About 750 workers lost their jobs, and were left without any health benefits and reduced pensions. The federal government was forced to infuse $44 million into the company's underfunded pension plan.
Bain received $12 million on its $8 million initial investment and at least $4.5 million in consulting fees, according to a January report by Reuters.
The commercial shows interviews with former workers at the Kansas City plant who said Bain's role led to job losses and slashed benefits. It intersperses their claims with clips of Romney promoting his business background and empathizing with the jobless during campaign events. There also are images of a closed factory, run-down buildings and a road sign that says "Dead End."
"Bain Capital walked away with a lot of money that they made off this plant. We view Mitt Romney as a job destroyer," said steel worker John Wiseman.
David Axelrod, a senior adviser to Obama's campaign, said Romney wants to "create the illusion that somehow his experience equips him to lead the economy but there's nothing about the record that would support that."
"His central premise is that he's an economic wizard who can really get this economy moving and if that's the only claim he is making for this office, that's a premise worth examining," Axelrod said.
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt contributed to this report.