Romney’s Bain drain: Is he repeating the mistakes of his 1994 campaign against Ted Kennedy?

Holly Bailey

Mitt Romney would later describe it as one of his biggest regrets about his first run for public office.

In 1994, Romney was a virtual unknown running to unseat Ted Kennedy as U.S. senator from Massachusetts. He campaigned on his business record as a turnaround artist at Bain Capital. But Democrats turned Romney's Bain record against him, casting him as a cold-blooded capitalist who put profits before workers.

The Democratic argument was illustrated by a strike at the Ampad paper plant in Marion, Ind., which had recently been acquired by Bain. The firm had fired most of the plant's employees, offering to rehire them back for reduced wages and benefits. Romney, who was on leave from Bain at the time because of the campaign, had no direct role in the Ampad dispute, but Kennedy seized upon the drama inside the company. Kennedy even appeared with some of Ampad's workers, who traveled to Massachusetts to protest Romney's claim of being a job creator at Bain.

Romney distanced himself from Ampad and other Bain-controlled companies by insisting he had no day-to-day role in what Bain was doing. Yet in an interview with the Boston Globe a few weeks after his loss in November 1994, Romney admitted that he was haunted by his failure to respond to the attacks on his record at Bain. He often woke up at night thinking about his missed opportunities in the campaign, he said.

And he said his biggest mistake was failing to quickly respond to Kennedy's attacks over Ampad.

"It left in the minds of voters I was a bad guy, a corporate downsizer and raider, and I should have responded more vehemently," Romney told the Globe. "I am a big boy and I know how politics is played. But I thought it would play more to the facts."

Eighteen years later, President Barack Obama and his Democratic allies have spent tens of millions of dollars on television ads casting Romney as a dangerous corporate raider who doesn't care about the middle class. In recent days, the Obama campaign has expanded that attack, accusing Romney of being secretive about his estimated $250 million personal fortune, much of which he accrued during his time at Bain. It's all a part of a larger effort by Democrats to cast Romney as a rich guy out of touch with the Americans who are struggling under the bad economy—a strategy that could help Obama deflect criticism that he hasn't done enough to turn the economy around.

Romney and his staff have been slow to push back on the Democratic attacks, which has prompted much hand-wringing among Republicans who worry that the Obama campaign is going to cement an impression of Romney in voters' minds before the party's presumptive presidential nominee can define himself.

"I am not sure what they are thinking," a Republican strategist, who declined to be named because he is advising the Romney campaign, told Yahoo News. "Yes, you don't want to be baited into answering every charge. But you also don't want to allow your opponent to define you before an American public that really doesn't know a lot about you yet."

On Friday, the Romney campaign made some changes. It hired Danny Diaz, a GOP operative who previously worked for John McCain and the Republican National Committee, to handle rapid response with the news media. And the candidate agreed to sit down for interviews with five TV networks—ABC, CBS, CNN, Fox News and NBC—in what is presumed to be a part of the campaign's pushback against the Bain attacks.

So far, Romney has firmly sided with his senior advisers, who have repeatedly argued that the road to victory in November is to keep their focus singularly on Obama's handling of the economy, which they believe will be the No. 1 issue at the polls in November.

Romney dismissed the concerns that he's not being aggressive enough in his responses to Democratic attacks, in an interview Wednesday with Neil Cavuto of Fox News.

"I respond to the attacks that come, but they say in politics if you are responding, you are losing. I think the better course for our campaign is to respond to the attacks as being completely off base," Romney said. "People are tired of this petty attack that comes from politicians, and they want to see someone who talks about the issues they care about."

But there is a danger in ignoring the attacks, as at least one of Romney's close allies can attest. In 2010, Tom Foley, a former U.S ambassador to Ireland, came under intense attack for his career as a venture capitalist during his bid to win the Republican nomination for governor in Connecticut. Democrats later revived the attacks during the general election, linking Foley to a Georgia textile plant that was forced into bankruptcy and shuttered. Foley countered that the plant's closing happened years after his firm had sold the company, and he recorded a TV ad in which he spoke directly to the camera and disputed his Democratic opponent's claims.

The ad was cut by Russ Schriefer, a longtime Republican strategist who was advising Foley's campaign and is now one of Romney's chief political advisers. Foley came up short in the race—a loss he credits in part to the last-minute attacks on his business career.

"If we'd had two or three more days, we probably could have won," Foley told Yahoo News.

Foley told Yahoo News that he sees "eerie" similarities between the attacks lobbed against his campaign and those being targeted at Romney. He told Yahoo News he wouldn't "second guess" the Romney strategy, but he said Republicans don't want to see Romney being "roughed up."

"Your own supporters want you to counterattack," Foley said. "They want to be comforted that you are doing the right thing."

The Romney campaign signaled a more aggressive tactic toward the Obama campaign on Thursday, unveiling a new TV ad airing in key swing states that accuses the president of lying about Romney's record. That was followed up on Friday by a second ad that uses Obama's own words to decry "scare tactics" in campaigns. They also unveiled a new page on the Romney website, calling out Obama for his distortions.

But at the same time, the Romney campaign appeared to be caught flat-footed by a story in the Boston Globe that suggested Romney may have worked at Bain Capital longer than he previously suggested. Although the campaign issued statements calling the story inaccurate, the story itself noted that Romney officials would not be quoted on the record responding to the Globe's questions. The move appeared to reflect a Romney strategy that was frequently exercised in during the primaries, in which the campaign tried to kill news stories by simply not responding to them—a tactic that is unlikely to be as successful heading into the heat of the general election.

The Obama campaign immediately latched on to the Globe report, with Stephanie Cutter, Obama's deputy campaign manager, going so far as to accuse Romney of potentially committing a felony by misstating his role at Bain Capital.

Cutter's quote instantly made headlines, but it took nearly four hours for the Romney campaign to formally respond by issuing a statement from Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades trashing her comment as a "new low" in the campaign.

Romney aides note, accurately, that most national polls still find the race a statistical tie between Obama and Romney, which they argue is evidence that their boss has not been hurt by Obama's attacks on Bain and Romney's personal finances.

But polls also find that most voters are still learning about Romney—and still deciding what they think about his Bain resume and Obama's claims that Romney outsourced jobs overseas. An ABC News/Washington Post poll released this week found that 40 percent of those polled believe Romney "cut jobs" while at Bain—a slight uptick from earlier this year—while 36 percent believe he did more to "create jobs."

A senior Romney adviser told Yahoo News that the attacks don't matter to voters—and won't impact the vote in November. "Voters don't care," the adviser, who declined to be named while discussing strategy, said. "People care about whether they can pay their bills and whether they have a job. And Obama has failed to make that better. That's what's really going to affect this race."