Between the Lines by Mark Halperin

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Brooks Kraft / Corbis for TIME

Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks at a campaign rally at Horizontal Wireline Services July 17, 2012 in Irwin, Pennsylvania.

No one in politics is surprised that Mitt Romney's personal wealth and business career have become a central point of the 2012 campaign. It has happened in virtually every race that Romney has ever run. But what has stunned both parties is how unprepared he has been to address the accusations that have dominated the campaign discourse for a fortnight, with no end in sight. The White House's aggressive, often cynical, attempts to paint Romney as a secretive, out-of-touch plutocrat are defining the race right now--and may be predetermining the outcome.

Democrats have fused the flaps over Romney's missing tax returns and his years at the helm of Bain Capital to keep the Republican's Boston campaign on the defensive. The question of Romney's role at the venture-capital shop is largely bogus. Romney left Bain abruptly in 1999 to take over the troubled Salt Lake City Olympic operation, maintaining his titular role as CEO and president on regulator filings until his negotiated final separation from the firm in 2002. Democrats have successfully kept the issue alive in part by suggesting, without any evidence, that Romney secretly continued to manage the company.

A response team headed by Romney's close friend and former Bain partner Bob White and financial and political operative Matt McDonald has been assembling facts about Bain and Romney's role for months, but the campaign has failed to translate their research into an effective political response. They have been hampered by the severe reluctance of current Bain partners to go on television and help get the facts out. Ironically, the Bain team's desire to stay out of the fray to avoid damaging the firm's reputation has only shoved it more front and center. In private and in public, Romney has taken umbrage at the assault and evinced frustration that the company he built is being used to bludgeon his campaign.

The tax returns are another matter. Romney continues to refuse to reveal returns for years before 2010, arguing that they would only be used by the Obama campaign to attack him unfairly. His advisers insist there is nothing explosive in the mystery filings. Former Mississippi governor Haley Barbour, Congressman Ron Paul and the editorial board of National Review have prodded Romney to put out more, but sources inside Romney's campaign claim that no such move is being considered. Romney strategist Stuart Stevens says, "Barack Obama has spent over $50 million to try and convict Mitt Romney of being successful. He's on the wrong side of history with an old argument Americans have always rejected."

Maybe so, but from the beginning of this election cycle, Romney has told Republicans he is tough enough and smart enough to beat an incumbent President and his aggressive political team. On Bain and taxes, at least, Romney has failed his midsummer test.

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