President Barack Obama's re-election campaign on Monday stepped up its criticism of Mitt Romney for cutting jobs when he was a business executive, despite a warning from a leading Obama supporter that the attacks have gone too far.
The Obama camp launched an ad featuring former workers at an office supplies business that went bankrupt after Republican candidate Romney's Bain Capital took it over in the mid-1990s.
Opponents, and even Cory Booker, the Democratic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, complained that the attacks on Romney's record at private equity firm Bain could undermine free enterprise.
Obama was forced to defend the anti-Romney strategy when he was asked about it at a news conference after a NATO summit in Chicago.
"The reason this is relevant to the campaign is because my opponent, Governor Romney, his main calling card for why he thinks he should be president is his business experience," Obama said. He said his campaign was not attacking private equity businesses in general.
"I think my view of private equity is that it is - it is set up to maximize profits and that's a healthy part of the free market," Obama said.
Monday's Obama campaign ad of nearly six minutes is set in Marion, Indiana, a swing state that Obama narrowly won in 2008. It mixes news coverage of bankruptcy at SCM Office Supplies, where 350 workers lost their jobs, with testimony from fired workers.
"To me, Mitt Romney takes from the poor and the middle class and gives to the rich. It's just the opposite of Robin Hood," said Randy Johnson, a former employee.
Starting last week, Obama's campaign launched videos attacking Romney's jobs record at Bain, focused on jobs lost after some businesses acquired by Bain went bankrupt, while company officials including Romney amassed fortunes.
DEMOCRATS AT ODDS OVER BAIN
Democrats' attempts to portray Romney as a corporate raider who is out of touch with ordinary Americans were made more difficult on Sunday by rising Democratic star Booker calling foul.
He termed "nauseating" a series of ads from Obama and his allies that slammed Romney's work at Bain.
Booker later backed off his televised comments but the damage was done for the Obama campaign, which has failed to halt a rise in opinion polls by Romney since he effectively became the Republican nominee last month.
David Axelrod, a senior campaign strategist, said Booker was off the mark.
"In this particular instance, he was just wrong," he told MSNBC. He said the ads are justified because Romney is using his business experience to boost his run for the White House.
Republicans were delighted by the disarray among Democrats. The Republican National Committee launched a fund-raising drive and online petition urging supporters to "stand with Cory," with a link to a video of Booker's remarks on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Job creation is a central theme of what is expected to be a close general election on Nov. 6, with the outcome likely to depend on how Americans are feeling about the sluggish economy.
Former Massachusetts Governor Romney is running neck and neck with Obama in opinion polls, and surveys often show voters prefer the ex-businessman's jobs message to Obama's.
Romney's campaign released its own web video highlighting Booker's remarks, and comments by other well-known Democrats defending the private equity business.
"I agree with Mayor Booker who said that these attacks against Bain Capital and free enterprise are nauseating," Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to the Romney campaign, said on MSNBC. (Editing by Eric Walsh)
© 2014 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.