By STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — The core of his presidential candidacy under attack, Mitt Romney has yet to shape a playbook to defend a quarter-century in the business world that created great riches for him and great hardship, at times, for some American workers.
Romney and his aides have struggled to respond consistently to intensifying criticism about his tenure at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he helped found, and how it would be reflected in his presidency. The lack of a cohesive message stems, in part, from Romney's fundamental belief that any debate that puts the economy front and center is a win for Republicans. Public polling shows most Americans are not satisfied with the pace of the recovery under President Barack Obama.
The election, Romney aides say, will be a referendum on Obama's economic leadership far more than a question of Romney's business career, regardless of how much Democrats highlight that issue.
So far, Romney aides have let Democrats — led by Obama — do most of the talking.
Obama on Monday sharply attacked Romney's background as a venture capitalist, offering his most expansive comments to date about how Romney's role as founder of the Boston-based private equity firm doesn't necessarily translate to the White House.
"If your main argument for how to grow the economy is 'I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,' then you're missing what this job is about," Obama said during a news conference at an international summit in Chicago. "It doesn't mean you weren't good at private equity, but that's not what my job is as president. My job is to take into account everybody, not just some. My job is to make sure that the country is growing not just now, but 10 years from now and 20 years from now."
He added: "This is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about — is what is a strategy for us to move this country forward in a way where everybody can succeed?"
Romney ignored Obama's criticism as he courted donors on Wall Street during a three-day fundraising tour. He issued a written statement that said Obama was once again attacking the free enterprise system.
"What this election is about is the 23 million Americans who are still struggling to find work and the millions who have lost their homes and have fallen into poverty," Romney said. "President Obama refuses to accept moral responsibility for his failed policies. My campaign is offering a positive agenda to help America get back to work."
Romney's campaign has offered several defenses since Obama's re-election team launched an all-out assault against Bain: It's a simple distraction, an affront to free markets, an attempt to divide the nation, a misreading of the firm's success. The campaign released a Web video last week featuring workers from an Indiana company that benefited from Bain's involvement.
On Tuesday, a prominent Romney supporter, former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu further muddied the campaign's position when he said "the Bain record as a whole is fair game."
In 80 percent of the cases, he said the company saved jobs. A Bain spokesman also said "revenues grew in 80 percent of the more than 350 companies in which we have invested," which does not necessarily mean that the companies' bottom lines or job numbers improved.
"That's a good batting average in the private sector business — private equity business," Sununu told reporters during a conference call. He added that any "cherry picking" focusing on the company's failures is "a distortion."
Romney himself generally has avoided the issue as he spends most of his time privately raising money, and did so during a $2,500-a-plate reception Monday at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel.
"I understand the economy because I've lived in it," he said. "And by the way, I've been successful, but I've also lost. There's sometimes I failed. I probably learned more from failures than from the successes. But I know how this economy works."