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—a move that has prompted much hand-wringing among Republicans who worry the Obama campaign is going to cement an impression of Romney in voters' minds before the party's presumptive presidential nominee can define himself.