By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau –
WASHINGTON — The Massachusetts statehouse steps became the stage for some unscripted political theater on Thursday when the campaigns of Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama held dueling press conferences to debate the former Massachusetts governor’s record in the state.
The Obama campaign first picked the venue, announcing it would gather current and former Massachusetts leaders in Boston to pick apart Romney’s record on job creation and budgeting during his tenure. The event marked the opening of a new front in Obama’s battle to define Romney, a still relatively unknown figure to some voters.
Obama’s campaign underscored the new lines of attack with a Web video featuring the local and state leaders. They blasted Romney as a detached and ineffective governor who oversaw a rapid decline in the state’s economy.
“He just did not get the job done, he did not walk the talk,” says John Barrett, a former mayor of North Adams, Mass., in the video.
But news of the press conference leaked out early, giving the Romney campaign time to stage its own pre-emptive news conference and bring supporters to the scene.
As mayors and state officials blasted Romney’s record, Romney supporters could be heard loudly chanting “We want Mitt!” and “Where are the jobs?” at times nearly drowning out the speakers.
Those speakers included Obama’s top campaign adviser David Axelrod, who at one point shouted back at the crowd. “You can shout down speakers my friends, but it’s hard to Etch-A-Sketch away the truth.”
Asked later what he thought of the scene, Axelrod noted: “Look this is the great pageant of democracy.”
To be sure, there is plenty of pageantry in presidential campaign, but it rarely involves such a raucous collision so early in the race.
It seemed to formally usher a summer of mudslinging.
Both campaigns are rushing to establish a layered — and damaging — narrative about their opponents. For the Obama campaign that means establishing attacks that undercut Romney’s two key credentials: first, that his experience as the former head of a private equity firm gives him experience creating jobs and shepherding an economic recovery; second, that his experience in Massachusetts demonstrates his ability to shrink government while expanding the economy.
The Obama campaign already has released ads going after the first claim, casting Romney as an erstwhile corporate raider with no concern for workers. This second wave noted that manufacturing jobs left Massachusetts during Romney’s term in office and blamed Romney for not investing in education and job training.
“Mitt Romney never understood what government was all about,” Barrett said Thursday, straining to be heard above the Romney supporters’ chanting. “Government is not about Power Point presentations, it’s about helping people and not just some of the people.”
A Romney spokeswoman rebutted the attacks.
“The Obama campaign has gone from ‘Hope and Change’ to ‘Hope To Change The Subject,’” Andrea Saul said. “Only President Obama, who has failed to meet his own goal of 6 percent unemployment, would have the audacity to attack Mitt Romney’s record of creating jobs.”
Not surprisingly, the candidates themselves were far away from the scene. Obama was in Washington on Thursday. Romney was campaigning and fundraising in California.