The Obama campaign is in full damage-control mode one day after Newark Mayor Cory Booker publicly derided Democrats' assault on presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney over his record at Bain Capital.
Chief Obama strategist David Axelrod today publicly rebuked Booker, a popular and high-profile surrogate for the campaign, saying he was "just wrong."
"I love Cory Booker. He's a great mayor. If I were, if my house was on fire, I'd hope he were my next door neighbor," Axelrod said on MSNBC, referring to Booker's rescue of a neighbor last month.
"I agree with what he said later. I think this was a legitimate area for discussion," Axelrod said of Booker's subsequent comments clarifying the issue.
As for the criticism that the Team Obama's Bain attack is part of "nauseating" political discourse with which Booker has become "very uncomfortable," Axelrod said, "on this particular instance he was just wrong."
Booker is not the only Democrat to question the aggressive, negative portrayal of Romney's work in private equity. Former Tennessee Rep. Harold Ford Jr. said today he agreed with "the substance" of Booker's comments and "would not have backed out."
"I agree with him, private equity is not a bad thing. Matter of fact, private equity is a good thing in many, many instances," the Democrat said in a separate appearance on MSNBC earlier in the day.
Former Obama administration economic adviser Steven Rattner made similar comments last week, calling a new Obama campaign TV ad attacking Romney's role in the bankruptcy of a Bain-owned steel company "unfair."
"Bain Capital's responsibility was not to create 100,000 jobs or some other number. It was to create profits for its investors," Rattner said. "'It did it superbly well, acting within the rules, acting very responsibly. … This is part of capitalism, this is part of life. I don't think there's anything Bain Capital did that they need to be embarrassed about."
Republicans have been gleeful with the apparent divide among Democrats over the portrayal of Romney's Bain days. The Romney campaign produced a web video - "Big Bain Backfire" - highlighting the comments, while the Republican National Committee purchased ads on Twitter to play up the Booker flap.
"President Obama's attacks on free enterprise have triggered a backlash among many, even among those in his own party," Romney spokeswoman Amanda Henneberg said. "With no record to run on, it is no surprise that the Obama campaign has resorted to misleading attacks that have been disavowed by its own supporters."
On a conference call with reporters to discuss the latest phase in the anti-Bain attack, Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said Romney's record was fair game and insisted that Democrats, including Booker, are united behind the need for greater scrutiny of it.
"We're not questioning the purpose of the private equity business as a whole or Romney's capacity to run a business as he saw fit," LaBolt told reporters on a conference call. "We're questioning what the values and lessons are from that experience, whether the economic philosophy that he demonstrated while he was a corporate buyout specialist is one that Americans would like to see in the Oval Office."
Booker himself has worked to clarify his remarks, taking to Twitter and YouTube to insist he supports examination of Romney's Bain record but simply opposes a negative, divisive tone.
"Mitt Romney has made his business record a centerpiece of his campaign. He's talked about himself as a job creator and therefore it is reasonable, and I encourage it, for the Obama campaign to examine that record and to discuss it," Booker said Sunday night in a Web video.
"I have no problem with that."
While Booker's blunder distracted somewhat from the Obama campaign's message Monday, it seems unlikely to impact Democrats' overall strategy going forward. Obama aides believe Romney's role at Bain illustrates a philosophy of economic unfairness that will not appeal to middle class voters.
"Mitt Romney's partners, employees, and top supporters have all been clear: his tenure at Bain Capital was about creating wealth for himself and his investors, not creating jobs," said Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith. "Those are the very same economic values he'd bring to the presidency. America can't afford 'Romney economics.'"