The two competing U.S. presidential campaigns dueled from opposite coasts yesterday, with both focusing on an issue at a specific locale that they think spotlights vulnerabilities for their opponent.
Surrogates for President Barack Obama went to the steps of the Massachusetts statehouse in Boston to present Mitt Romney as a failed former governor who exaggerates his job-growth record.
The presumptive Republican nominee leveled his attack from outside the closed factory of solar-panel manufacturer Solyndra LLC in Fremont, California, where he accused Obama of seeking favor among campaign supporters by giving a federal loan guarantee to an energy company that later went bankrupt.
Besides displaying the open hostility already simmering in the 2012 presidential campaign, the two events showcased the major themes the two camps have signaled they will hammer home through November’s election.
“This building, this half-a-billion dollar taxpayer investment, represents a serious conflict of interest on the part of the president and his team,” Romney said, standing at a podium set up on the road adjacent to the Solyndra facility.
The former Massachusetts governor has repeatedly criticized the Obama administration’s decision to extend the $535 million loan guarantee to Solyndra, saying it was part of a pattern of rewarding companies and people that supported the president with taxpayer dollars. The family foundation of Obama fundraiser George Kaiser was the company’s biggest investor.
For Obama’s campaign, the message chief political strategist David Axelrod tried to deliver from the steps of the statehouse was drowned out in part by loud Romney supporters.
The news conference was meant to pivot off the Obama campaign’s scrutiny of Romney’s experience in private equity by arguing that his business background didn’t translate into good governance in Massachusetts.
“He offers himself as an economic guru and savior off of his experience in business,” Axelrod said. “And when he was governor of this state, this state was 47th in job creation.”
All the while, Romney supporters tried to drown out the event, with Axelrod shouting back, “You can’t handle the truth.”
The campaign’s switch to focus on Romney’s Massachusetts record came as former President Bill Clinton, who is appearing with Obama at a fundraiser next week, stepped into the debate whether Romney’s experience in private equity should be a political target.
“He had a good business career,” Clinton said last night on CNN. “I don’t think that we ought to get into the position where we say this is bad work.”
While Romney is qualified for the presidency, Clinton said, “the Obama proposals and the Obama record will be far better for the American economy.” He said he expected Obama will win re-election “by five or six points.”
Obama’s campaign was hit today by news the unemployment rate last month rose to 8.2 percent from 8.1 percent, as employers added 69,000 jobs -- the fewest in a year and less than the most pessimistic forecast in a Bloomberg News economists’ survey.
“Today’s weak jobs report is devastating news for American workers and American families,” Romney said in an e-mailed statement. “It is now clear to everyone that President Obama’s policies have failed to achieve their goals and that the Obama economy is crushing America’s middle class.”
Alan Krueger, chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, said that while the economy “is not growing fast enough” the May jobs numbers represent 27 consecutive months of private employment growth. “Problems in the job market were long in the making and will not be solved overnight,” Krueger said in an e-mailed statement.
In a CBS News interview yesterday, Romney said he gives Obama a failing grade in every area of his presidency, including foreign policy.
Asked to grade Obama, Romney responded: “Oh, an F, no question about that,” adding that it applies “across the board.”
Tim Roemer, a former Democratic congressman from Indiana and ex-ambassador to India, said Romney is “misguided and misinformed.” Romney is out of step with experts in his own party who “have recognized President Obama’s accomplishments” in foreign policy, Roemer said in an e-mailed statement.
Romney and his wife, Ann, also met privately yesterday with former first lady Nancy Reagan at her California home, where they snacked on lemonade and cookies and she offered her endorsement.
“Ronnie would have liked Governor Romney’s business background and his strong principles, and I have to say I do too,” she said in a statement released by her office. “I believe Mitt Romney has the experience and leadership skills that our country so desperately needs, and I look forward to seeing him elected president in November.”
Both campaigns had sought yesterday to keep the locations of their events secret until as late as possible. Romney’s campaign went so far as loading reporters onto a bus without telling them where they were being taken.
Romney, 65, a co-founder of the Boston-based private-equity firm Bain Capital LLC, sought to use Solyndra’s failure to underscore his central argument that he understands how business works while Obama doesn’t. He also has said the president is hindering corporate success with regulations, including the Dodd-Frank Act that sets new rules for the banking industry in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis.
The reason “that the turnaround has taken so long to occur, that the recovery has been so tepid, is that the president fails to understand the basic nature of free enterprise in America,” Romney said. “He thinks that government-dominated decisions like this make America stronger. They make us weaker.”
Solyndra, heralded by Obama in May 2010 as proof that “the promise of clean energy isn’t just an article of faith,” filed for bankruptcy last September, days before the FBI raided its headquarters. The company received its loan guarantee under an Energy Department program in September 2009.
Its demise has sparked investigations by Congress, the FBI and watchdogs at the Energy and Treasury departments.
“If the business had done spectacularly well, the shareholders -- his friends -- would have done very, very well, but the taxpayers would have just gotten their money back,” Romney said. “On the other hand, of course, if the business failed -- as it did -- it’s the taxpayers that get stuck with losing a half a billion dollars.”
Solyndra received funding through a program created under President George W. Bush’s administration that “has supported tens of thousands of jobs across the country,” Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement.
“In fact, both Republican and Democratic administrations advanced Solyndra’s application, and the company was widely praised as successful and innovative both before and after receiving the Department of Energy loan guarantee,” Smith said.
Romney ended his day with a fundraiser in Beverly Hills, California. The gathering of supporters was the latest in a series of such events he is holding this week in Nevada and California.
Obama is “trying to find someone to take the fall” for the poor economy, Romney told about 425 people who attended the fundraiser. “He doesn’t understand the power of free people and free enterprise.”
Actor Jon Voight, who said he first met Romney in 2008, told reporters he supports the Republican because he “wants to restore individual freedoms.” Obama “would like to have everybody dependent on the government,” he said.
There is almost no chance that Romney will carry California in November’s election. Obama beat Senator John McCain of Arizona, the 2008 Republican nominee, in California 61 percent to 37 percent. Still, the state is an important fundraising hub for Republicans, especially in the Republican-leaning areas of the state such as San Diego and Orange County south of Los Angeles.
Obama, 50, has raised more than twice as much as Romney -- $6.6 million to $2.9 million -- from the Los Angeles metropolitan area, according to the Washington-based Center for Responsive Politics.
-- With assistance from Julianna Goldman in Washington. Editors: Joe Sobczyk, Michael Shepard