COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Just days ago, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney stood with newly minted running mate Paul Ryan and promised a campaign focused on big ideas like "a positive governing agenda that will lead to economic growth."
Since then, the GOP ticket has been anything but positive. The pair has lambasted President Barack Obama on everything from Medicare to welfare to the hard-hitting tone of the campaign.
Obama is running a campaign of "division and attack and hatred," Romney told CBS News on Wednesday, amplifying criticisms he made a night earlier before a cheering crowd in Ohio. Added Romney: The president is "running just to hang onto power, and I think he would do anything in his power."
Obama's team, in turn, castigated Romney for the remarks, saying they bore the mark of an "unhinged" campaign.
It was the latest evidence of a shift in strategy for Romney. And it comes as national polls show Obama with a slight lead just three months before the election and as the GOP ticket increasingly faces questions about which parts of Ryan's budget plan and Medicare proposals Romney supports.
In recent days, Romney has branched out from his core message of the economy and jobs. He has spent a year working to sully Obama on that front alone, while casting himself as a credible steward of the economy given his decades in the private sector. But Romney has now taken to criticizing Obama in biting terms on multiple fronts, an attempt to poke holes in the president in as many places as possible as the clock ticks down on the Republican's chance to gain ground over the Democrat.
Romney's latest effort: going after Obama's central strength: his likability. The Republican hopes to convince voters that the man who once was the candidate of hope and change — and is now a president most voters still like, even if they don't support his policies — doesn't represent those values any longer.
Obama, to be sure, is not innocent of the go-for-the-jugular politics.
His team has spent months — and millions — criticizing Romney over his record at the private equity firm Bain Capital and his time as Massachusetts governor. Obama and his allies have lambasted Romney for his refusal to release more than one year and a summary of another year of his personal tax returns. And a super political action committee aligned with the president produced an ad suggesting that Romney was at least partly responsible for the death of a woman whose husband lost a job at a company Bain owned.
Earlier this year, Romney strategists expressed some hesitation about assailing Obama's character for fear of turning off the swing voters who backed Obama in 2008 and wanted to see him succeed.
During Obama's term, voters told pollsters they liked him, even if they rejected his economic policies and were unhappy with his health care law. To hear Romney aides tell it back then, there were potential pitfalls in criticizing Obama too personally. The solution, then, was a laser-like focus on the economy and jobs and an insistence that, while Obama might be a decent guy, his economic policies were bad for the country.
"We have a president who I think is a nice guy, but he spent too much time at Harvard, perhaps, or maybe just not enough time working in the real world," Romney said in April during a campaign swing through Pennsylvania. "He's so out of touch with the American people the he doesn't see how many people are struggling amidst his policies."
But the strategy started to shift amid evidence that Romney's image suffered this summer as Obama and his allies spent millions on TV advertising criticizing the Republican. Every major poll in the past two months has found Obama's favorability rating in positive territory, while Romney's languishes at about even or worse and has deteriorated in some recent surveys.
Now, as polls show Romney trailing, his advisers argue that Obama's negative tone has undermined the premise of his 2008 campaign as the candidate of hope and change who promised a different kind of politics. They point to campaign ads, like one by Priorities USA about the cancer-stricken woman, and an Obama spokeswoman's suggestion that Romney may have committed a felony if he didn't tell the truth in federal filings related to his tenure running Bain Capital, as evidence that Obama is just another politician most concerned with winning re-election. They claim it could turn off voters who were excited about Obama's "change" pitch in 2008.
To that end, Romney opened this line of criticism late Tuesday outside the marble courthouse in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he delivered a prepared speech as the sun set and thousands cheered.
"This is what an angry and desperate presidency looks like," Romney said. It came just hours after Vice President Joe Biden told voters in Virginia that he meant to use different words when he said the Republican ticket wanted to put them "back in chains" by repealing Wall Street regulations.
In an interview with People magazine on Wednesday, Obama rejected the criticism, saying Biden meant nothing more than to describe what consumers would face if financial institutions were deregulated. "The truth is that during the course of these campaigns, folks like to get obsessed with how something was phrased even if everybody personally understands that's not how it was meant," he said.
Democrats said Obama himself was unlikely to respond aggressively to Romney's criticism in part to avoid the potential for the nation's first black president to be tagged with the "angry black man" stereotype.
Associated Press writer Julie Pace in Washington contributed to this report.
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