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In New Ads Focused On Character, Obama And Romney Get Personal

Romney campaign ad

The economy and jobs may be what voters say they're most concerned about.

But any voters out there who enjoy smash-mouth presidential campaigns are certainly getting one right now — and it's not even Labor Day yet.

If the ads are any guide, the race between the two men has gotten increasingly personal and angry.

On Friday, Republican Mitt Romney's campaign released a TV ad titled "America Deserves Better" that casts doubts about President Obama's character. It links those doubts to a controversial anti-Romney ad from a superPAC run by a former White House aide.

The Priorities USA ad frames Romney as a Scrooge-like figure, uncaring about human suffering, with the story of widower Joe Soptic, who worked at a manufacturing plant closed by Bain Capital. The ad leaves the impression that Soptic's wife, who died of cancer, may have discovered her cancer sooner if the factory closing hadn't caused the family to lose its insurance.

Fact-checkers galore have questioned that impression. PolitiFact concluded "there's no proof directly linking the death to Bain," and rated the ad false.

Meanwhile, the Romney campaign and others have accused the Obama campaign of trying to wash its hands of the superPAC's attack, even though Soptic also participated in an Obama campaign conference call and ad.

In the new Romney ad, the narrator says:

"What does it say about a president's character when his campaign tries to use the tragedy of a woman's death for political gain? ... His top aides were caught lying about it. Doesn't America deserve better than a president who will say or do anything to stay in power?"

The ad goes directly at what has been an area of strength for Obama with voters. Polls have consistently indicated that voters see the president as more likable than Romney.

A recent Gallup poll also shows the president with a significant edge on the question of which candidate is more honest and trustworthy. The new Romney ad can be seen as an effort to weaken the president's advantage on that score.

What Eric Fehrnstrom, a top Romney adviser, told reporters Friday underscored this. The Washington Post reports:

"I don't think a world champion limbo dancer could get any lower than the Obama campaign right now," Fehrnstrom said. "In the process, Obama has squandered what has always been one of his key attributes — that he was a different kind of politician who was going to take us to a better place."

Meanwhile, the president's campaign released an ad taking on Romney's recent line of attack — that Obama has weakened the work requirements in the welfare overhaul law. That charge has been skewered by fact-checkers as well. PolitiFact called it " not accurate."

Titled "Blatant," the Obama ad doesn't exactly accuse Romney of being a liar — though it gets about as close as it can without using the word.

"See this? Mitt Romney claiming the president would end welfare's work requirements? The New York Times calls it 'blatantly false.' "

The ad's makers made sure to flash a picture of Romney as the words "blatantly false" from the Times editorial appear enlarged on the screen.

In addition to trying to discredit Romney's claim, the Obama ad also — like Romney's spot — attempts to raise further doubts about character.

And the "Blatant" ad comes a day after another Obama campaign ad that points to Romney's reluctance to release more of his tax records, and mentions some complicated tax avoidance maneuvers by Marriott Corp. that Romney signed off on as a director. It asks at the end: "Isn't it time for Romney to come clean?" A voter watching that ad would be safe to assume Obama's campaign was accusing the Republican of hiding something.

It's all a far cry from discussing the economy, which is what both campaigns say they would prefer to be doing right now.

In an interview with NBC News' Chuck Todd, which the journalist provides snippets of in a post on the First Read blog, Romney sounded like he was offering Obama a truce on attack ads. The parenthetical comments are Todd's:

"Romney also said in the interview he would like a pledge (of sorts) with Obama that there be no 'personal' attack ads. '[O]ur campaign would be — helped immensely if we had an agreement between both campaigns that we were only going to talk about issues and that attacks based upon — business or family or taxes or things of that nature.' (Question: Is Romney really saying that scrutinizing his business record — which he has held up as one of his chief qualifications to be president — is personal? But we digress ...) He continued: '[W]e only talk about issues. And we can talk about the differences between our positions and our opponent's position.' Romney said of his own campaign: '[O]ur ads haven't gone after the president personally. ... [W]e haven't dredged up the old stuff that people talked about last time around. We haven't gone after the personal things.' That doesn't mean surrogates or Super PACs have, as was brought up to him..."

Jen Psaki, a spokesman for the Obama campaign, told reporters Thursday that the Obama campaign is only doing what it needs to do to untwist facts about Obama's record.

"We know that there's a debate that's going on out there between ads on the airwaves. But I'll say there's been — if you bear with me while I use a fruit analogy — but there's been a bit of an apples-to-oranges comparison here, when we're comparing an ad that has not even run, by an outside group we have nothing to do with, with an ad that is the basis of Mitt Romney's campaign right now, that is a bold-face lie about the President's record on welfare. And I think that's frustrating to us because they're being compared at the same level.

"So I will say that the President is out there — you'll hear him talk again this afternoon about what the American people care about. We'd love to be focused on that. But at the same time, we know when there are ads on the air that are distorting his record, we do have to clarify and put out the accurate information about what's the truth."

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Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.