To respond or not to respond, that is the question for Mitt Romney, and increasingly it's one of his biggest challenges in the presidential campaign.
President Obama's re-election team is making every effort to divert Romney from his long-time message of attacking Obama's economic record and failure to move the jobless rate below 8 percent. Instead, Obama is trying to force Romney to address other issues that are troublesome for him.
In recent weeks, those themes have included calls for Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, to release more of his tax returns because Obama and the Democrats say he has something to hide. Obama and his allies are also attacking Romney for being more interested in making profits than creating jobs while he was head of Bain Capital, a private-equity firm. And the Obama campaign this week began attacking Romney for "dancing around the issues," which repeats the charge that he lacks core convictions that his GOP opponents used against him during the Republican primaries earlier this year.
All this amounts to the biggest test yet for Romney's fabled message discipline, in which he tries to make his point over and over about Obama's economic record and doesn't get distracted by other topics. This approach has enabled him to remain in a statistical tie with Obama despite the negative onslaught against him. The latest New York Times/CBS News poll shows Romney with 47 percent of the vote and Obama with 46.
The problem is that many Republicans and political analysts say Romney may be suffering long-term damage from the attacks, especially the Democratic charges that he is hiding something in his tax returns, such as foreign investments that may prove embarrassing or using tax breaks to pay a very low rate. Even some Republicans, including Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a libertarian favorite who remains in a GOP presidential candidate, have called on Romney to release more tax information.
But Romney has refused so far, arguing that the Democrats will distort whatever information he releases in order to damage his campaign.
Instead, Romney has been trying to find new ways to make his case against Obama on the economy. On Thursday morning, his campaign pounced on comments from White House Press Secretary Jay Carney that Obama has had too much "on his plate" to meet during the past six months with his Jobs Council. a group of advisers who are supposed to be focusing on ways to increase employment.
Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, told reporters, "With weekly jobless claims spiking, more and more Americans are losing faith in President Obama's handling of the economy. It's just the latest evidence that the president simply doesn't have what it takes to get our economy moving again—on top of the fact that he just has 'a lot on his plate.'"
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News & World Report. He writes the daily blog, "Ken Walsh's Washington," and is the author of "The Presidency" column in the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Facebook and Twitter.