Obama vs. Romney: This Time It's Personal

PHOTO: President Barack Obama waves prior to speaking at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, June 14, 2012. Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at Seilkop Industries in Cincinnati, Ohio, June 14, 2012.
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Both candidates say this election is about the economy. But the Obama campaign has done its best to make everything about Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney's Swiss bank accounts. His vast wealth. His vacations.

Ann Romney said the Obama campaign is trying to "kill" her husband.

Here's how President Obama put it during a campaign speech on Friday in Ohio, the same day a government jobs report showed little growth and an unchanged unemployment rate:

"Mr. Romney's experience -- because he always says, 'I've got a lot of business experience; I know how to create jobs,' -- well, look, his company that he started were called the pioneers of business outsourcing. The pioneers of outsourcing. So that's his experience."

Obama's campaign speech was a model for what has become his strategy: talk about the economy only when necessary, and spend as much time as possible chipping away at Romney's secretive and corporate background.

Likability, after all, is the president's strongest attribute in the race. While voter preference is deadlocked at 47 percent in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama is seen as more likable than Romney, 63-27 percent. He has a 10-point lead when people are asked who better understands the economic problems people are having.

On Sunday, Obama's top spokespeople got the memo, and they were on message. On a variety of political talk shows, Democrats repeated their concerns about Romney's Swiss bank account and other financial arrangements, so much so that the Democratic National Committee roped them all into a neat little video.

There's ex-White House press secretary Robert Gibbs saying nobody knows why Romney has a business in Bermuda that was just recently disclosed. Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley says Romney put the company under his wife's name to avoid disclosure. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin says Romney is either hiding his business or that he thinks Swiss currency is stronger than the dollar.

"Why does an American businessman need a Swiss bank account and secretive investments like that?" DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz asks rhetorically.

Recent presidential elections have born out similar story lines: One candidate runs on policy, and the other campaigns on his opponent's character. In 2008, Obama's message was policy oriented with a post-crash focus on the economy; he repeatedly tied John McCain to President Bush, who had grown unpopular as jobs were lost. McCain's campaign, meanwhile, surfaced radical figures in Obama's life to paint him as an extremist; Sarah Palin famously said Obama was "palling around with terrorists." A McCain campaign ad mocked him for being a celebrity.

Four years earlier, Bush fought for reelection in a race that coined the term "swiftboating," a reference to the negative ads that accused John Kerry of being dishonest about his military service.

The race in 2012 might be unique in that Obama has actually admitted that his campaign will be focused on digging up Romney's history. "This is not a distraction," Obama said at a press conference, when questioned about his campaign's attack ads on Bain Capital, the firm Romney ran. "This is what this campaign is going to be about."

"I think what you're seeing is the Democrats taking a page out of the Republican playbook, which is, go after a core strength of the candidate and make it a negative," said David Di Martino, a Democratic strategist who was Kerry's deputy press secretary in 2004.

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