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From Bain record to tax returns, Romney eager to put summer behind him


Mitt Romney is betting on having already survived the worst personal scrutiny the Obama campaign has had to offer, leaving him with enough leftover political clout to wage an offensive this fall that would manage to unseat the president.

After offending Britons with comments about the Olympics, Mitt Romney continues to face criticism over remarks he made about Israelis and Palestinians. Meanwhile, he wraps up his  trip abroad with a visit to Poland. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

With 98 days until the election, the Romney campaign believes the dog days of summer are essentially behind them. The campaign views controversies involving his tax returns and work at Bain Capital as having a short shelf life, and the presumptive Republican nominee’s work to capitalize on the president’s “you didn’t build that” gaffe have effectively changed the subject. Romney’s foreign trip had also been built up as an opportunity to pivot away from July’s struggles, though momentum from the trip was more mixed due to stumbles on each of its three legs.

“Our whole goal was to just hold our own over the summer,” said Bay Buchanan, an outside adviser to the Romney campaign. “We've done the warm-up, and we're coming into the convention with a much better position than anticipated.”

But Democrats assert that the Republican shouldn’t be so quick to assume that the attacks based on Romney’s career and personal wealth will disappear.

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The first few weeks of July saw an unrelenting and coordinated offensive against Romney, led by the Obama campaign and a variety of Democratic groups. The former Massachusetts governor weathered weeks of ads accusing his private equity firm of having moved jobs overseas during Romney’s time in charge. To make matters worse, Romney had been somewhat opaque about the exact time of his departure from Bain Capital, and had also refused to release additional years of tax returns – leaving him vulnerable to speculation about what those hidden records contained.

The Romney campaign’s steadfastness in the face of scrutiny prompted semi-public handwringing among GOP poobahs, who wondered whether the GOP candidate was essentially allowing the president to define him.

Obama’s comments at a campaign stop in Roanoke, in which he seemed to suggest that business owners don’t deserve all the credit for their successes, handed the Romney campaign a chance to reverse momentum. Republicans have been hitting it hard since then, and the president even released an ad personally responding to the attack.

“You don't always want your candidate out there responding to everything they're saying,” said Buchanan. “We want him, Barack Obama, responding to us.”

Combined with anemic jobs numbers at the beginning of the month and a somewhat lackluster GDP report last week, Republicans believe their narrative on the economy is hardening and Romney remains strong enough to subsume Obama this fall.

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This all sets the stage for a pivotal month of August, in which Romney must introduce himself to voters and begin turning the tide against Obama.

It just might be the case that July’s squabbles, though, will set the parameters for the fall debate.

“It’s wishful thinking on the part of the Romney to think it's behind them. They might survive it, but it's not behind them,” said former Rep. Martin Frost of Texas, a Democrat known for his strategic acumen.

Frost said that if he were Romney, he wouldn’t release additional tax returns beyond what’s already been pledged – for fear that there were years in which the former Bain leader paid little to no taxes.

“The Romney people are whistling in the dark if they think the Bain thing will go away,” Frost added.

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Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean was starker.

“This is going to be the issue that brings him down,” he said, arguing that the attacks on Bain and Romney’s taxes cut to the core of questions about Romney’s character and trustworthiness.

Dean argued that even Romney’s best message on the economy won’t sink in with voters unless they’re willing to put faith in the former Massachusetts governor as Obama’s alternative.

“He could have turned this into something really good. But as long as he’s got his tax returns hidden, it’s going to be fatal,” Dean said, referencing in particular the Republican assault on Obama’s “You didn’t build that” comments. “What Romney is doing is negating his advantage on the economy by not seeming trustworthy.”

But Romney’s team is almost zenlike in its singular focus on the economy. Though much of the past week was dominated by the Republican’s foreign policy tour – for both its embarrassing moments and triumphs – attention will soon turn back to the economy. This Friday’s report on job creation during July could give Romney a cudgel to use against Obama, and the impending selection of a Republican vice presidential candidate and next month’s Republican convention would allow the GOP to drive the campaign narrative into September.

“Once we turn that corner where we can get past the explanations about Bain – and I think we have – then it's a winning campaign,” said Buchanan, who said that the drumbeat for Romney to offer more specific policy alternatives to Obama were “secondary” to convincing voters that his vision on the economy is superior to Obama’s.

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“We're going to hit the economy, stay on message the full extent we can. But we're not running in a vacuum. The other guy's going to be going after us personally,” she said. “You get your surrogates to respond to the personal stuff. They've hit us pretty hard, I don't know where else they're going to come.”

That might be music to the ears of the president’s team and most Democrats if their strategy on making the election into a choice – and disqualifying Romney in the process – is to be believed.

“I’ll say one thing about Obama, whatever my differences with him. He’s run the best campaign I’ve ever seen a Democrat run in my lifetime,” Dean said.

“Romney’s tried to keep this thing on the economy since March and he hasn’t succeeded. What makes you think he’s going to succeed the next three months?” he added.