May 18 (Bloomberg) -- A Republican strategist’s plan to air racially tinged ads against President Barack Obama drew rebukes from Mitt Romney and other Republicans while sparking a fresh debate over what -- if anything -- is off-limits in the presidential race.
Both Romney and a billionaire activist who was a prospective financier of ads trying to discredit Obama by highlighting his ties with a former pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr., denounced the idea yesterday. Racially incendiary sermons by Wright became an issue that Obama had to grapple with while running for president in 2008.
“I want to make it very clear I repudiate that effort,” Romney told reporters, referring to the advertising plan. It was said to have been drafted by Republican strategist Fred Davis for a super-political action committee backed by billionaire Joe Ricketts, founder of what is now TD Ameritrade.
“I think it’s the wrong course for a PAC or a campaign,” said the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. “I hope that our campaigns can respectively be about the future and about issues and about a vision for America.”
Romney, 65, also took the opportunity to accuse Obama, 50, and his campaign of the type of tactics the former Massachusetts governor is disavowing, asserting there is a negative slant to the president’s re-election bid.
“We can talk about a lot of things, but the centerpiece of his campaign is quite clearly character assassination, and the centerpiece of my campaign is going be my vision to get America working again,” Romney said at a brief question-and-answer session in Jacksonville, Florida, in response to the Wright story.
Still, Romney stopped short of disavowing remarks he made earlier this year on Sean Hannity’s radio show, when he said of Obama: “I don’t know which is worse -- him listening to Reverend Wright, or him saying we must be a less Christian nation.”
Asked yesterday whether he believed that Obama was trying to make the nation “less Christian” or that Wright shaped the president’s views and policies, Romney said, “I’m not familiar precisely with exactly what I said, but I stand by what I said, whatever it was.”
In decrying “character assassination,” Romney said he was referring to the Obama team’s criticism of his record as the co-founder and one-time chief executive officer of the Bain Capital LLC private equity firm. He said the attacks, which he also faced from rivals for the Republican nomination, were designed “not to describe success and failure, but somehow to suggest that I’m not a good person or not a good guy.”
An Obama campaign advertisement unveiled on May 14 portrays Romney as a cold-hearted executive whose firm cut a lucrative deal that cost steel-industry workers their jobs.
Romney said Obama’s team was trying “to characterize me in a way that isn’t accurate.”
He said his work at Bain “was in every case designed to make the enterprises we invested in more successful, to grow them. There’s this fiction that some have that somehow you can be highly successful by stripping assets from enterprise and walking away with lots of money and killing the enterprise. There may be some people who know how to do that; I sure don’t.”
The Romney campaign released its first ad of the general election today, a positive spot that talks about what Romney would do on Day One of his presidency. It asserts he would immediately approve the Keystone XL pipeline, cut taxes and replace the health-care law with “commonsense health-care reform.”
Obama’s campaign said that dissecting Romney’s business record is fair, given that he has cited it as his main qualification for the presidency.
“Despite staking his entire candidacy on his private sector experience, Mitt Romney and his campaign have repeatedly declared any balanced discussion of it as off-limits or even ‘character assassination,’” Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement.
Sermons by Wright that became an issue before Obama clinched the 2008 Democratic nomination included the pastor’s praise of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan and his claim that the government may have helped to spread AIDS to decimate the black population.
The flap over the proposed Wright-Obama ad underscored the potential power of one wealthy individual to alter the presidential campaign’s narrative, along with the challenge for Romney to keep it focused on the economy and away from divisive topics that could alienate independent voters whose support he needs to win.
Ricketts, 70, who finances the Ending Spending Action Fund super-PAC and whose family owns controlling interest in the Chicago Cubs baseball team, disavowed the ad proposal through a spokesman.
The businessman “is neither the author nor the funder” of the proposed ad, Brian Baker, the super-PAC’s president, said in a statement. He said the ad campaign was rejected because “it reflects an approach to politics that Mr. Ricketts rejects.”
Ricketts’s children serve on the Cubs’ board of directors and one of them, Laura, has raised more than $500,000 for Obama.
The ad issue overshadowed an announcement by Romney’s campaign that it raised $40.1 million in its first month of joint fundraising with the Republican National Committee. Romney completed a two-day fundraising sweep through the politically competitive state of Florida, where his tour of hotels, country clubs and private homes was expected to rake in $10 million.
Obama and the Democratic National Committee collected $43.6 million during the same month, the president’s campaign said May 16.
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