A new, tougher Mitt Romney plans to stay on the attack in the race for the White House, but growing pressure from across the political spectrum to release his personal tax returns threatens to stunt the Republican presidential candidate's momentum as he courts voters across key Midwestern battlegrounds.
The Republican presidential candidate took to the stump Tuesday in Pittsburgh with a crowd-rallying vigor, and kept up the pressure during a town hall meeting Wednesday afternoon in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Romney seized on Obama's now-infamous comment Friday in which he suggested businesses owe their success to government investment. His speech to a Pennsylvania crowd Tuesday and then to the Ohio crowd Wednesday zeroed in on that quote as illustrating a singular difference between his attitude toward the economy and Obama's.
"This is the height of foolishness. It shows how out of touch he is with the character of America," Romney said in Ohio. "When you attack success ... you will see under this president less success."
Romney accused Obama of trying to "diminish" individual achievement. Before he launched into his stump speech, Romney asked members of the audience Wednesday to raise their hands if they run a business. "Take that, Mr. President," Romney said after the hands went up.
Romney earlier described the comments as "stunning" and revealing" and argued they played into a larger narrative of Obama "changing the nature of America," calling his policies "extraordinarily foreign."
Romney said Obama wants Americans to be "ashamed of success." He suggested the comment was tantamount to saying Steve Jobs didn't build Apple or Ray Kroc didn't build McDonald's, calling the notion "insulting" and wrong.
"I'm convinced he wants Americans to be ashamed of success," Romney declared Tuesday in the Pittsburgh area as hundreds of supporters cheered him on.
Having spent most of Tuesday courting donors across Texas, Obama has a series of official meetings in Washington, including a fundraiser, before departing Thursday on a two-day campaign swing through Florida. His wife, first lady Michelle Obama, was scheduled to speak at a campaign fundraiser Wednesday in Birmingham, Ala.
Obama's campaign released a web video Wednesday questioning Romney's claims that he had "no responsibility whatsoever" at Bain after February 1999, despite SEC filings that list him as sole owner and CEO through February 2001.
But after being on his heels for several days, Romney launched an aggressive counterattack this week, punctuated by biting speeches, conference calls and a TV ad Wednesday accusing Obama of "crony capitalism." The ad says Obama sent stimulus money to "friends, donors, campaign supporters and special interest groups" and charges that taxpayer dollars went to projects in Finland and China.
For the often-reserved Romney, the fresh attacks marked a substantial escalation in aggression for a candidate who has struggled to answer questions about his business career and personal tax returns. The former businessman, who would be among the nation's wealthiest presidents if elected, has so far released just one year of personal income tax returns and promised to release a second.
That's a stark deviation from a tradition created in part by Romney's father, George, a presidential candidate a generation ago who released 12 years of his returns.
A defiant Romney has accused the Obama campaign of using the issue to distract voters from the state of the nation's economy less than four months before the Nov. 6 election.
But it's unclear if Romney's new strategy will be enough to change the subject, particularly as several prominent Republicans joined Democrats in pushing Romney for more transparency.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry — who challenged Romney for the Republican presidential nomination — late Tuesday became the latest in a series of top conservatives to pressure Romney to open his finances. Perry, who has released his tax returns dating back to 1992, said anyone running for office should make public as much personal information as possible to help voters decide.
The conservative National Review urged Romney to release additional tax returns even though it agreed with him that the Obama campaign wanted the returns for a "fishing expedition."
"By drawing out the argument over the returns, Romney is playing into the president's hands," the magazine said in an online editorial. "He should release them, respond to any attacks they bring, and move on."
Romney spokesman Kevin Madden said Romney will not bow to the pressure.
"The governor has gone above and beyond what's required for disclosure," Madden said. "The situation remains the same."
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, whose name has appeared prominently in speculation about Romney's choice for a running mate, vigorously defended Romney's limited tax release in a nationally broadcast interview Wednesday.
"There is no claim or no credible indication that he's done anything wrong," Pawlenty said on "CBS This Morning."
Pawlenty accused Obama's campaign of "hanging shiny objects before the public and the press and the press is taking the bait."
"I don't think there's any secret to the fact that Mitt Romney has been successful and he's achieved success and he's paid a lot of taxes," he said.
Meanwhile, Romney's campaign was forced to apologize after a supporter questioned Obama's patriotism, underscoring the political risks associated with the newfound aggression.
In a conference call arranged by the campaign, former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu told reporters he wished Obama "would learn how to be an American." He later apologized.
"I made a mistake. I shouldn't have used those words. And I apologize for using those words," Sununu told CNN. "But I don't apologize for the idea that this president has demonstrated that he does not understand how jobs are created in America."
The Romney campaign concedes that many voters may support the release of his tax returns, but it's unclear whether that's an important enough issue to change their votes.
At Tuesday's rally outside of Pittsburgh, Romney's supporters didn't seem to mind.
"I'm more concerned about what Obama does with my money," said Phil Kearney, a semi-retired 70-year-old Republican from Latrobe, Pa. "Romney's a rich guy. We all know it. God bless him."
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