IRWIN, Penn. — Standing before hundreds of roaring partisans in this sweltering Pittsburgh suburb Tuesday, Mitt Romney delivered a 30-minute speech that sounded, at times, like a greatest hits compilation of his favorite Obama-knocking stump speech lines. The president was, Romney said, "out of ideas," and "looking for someone to blame," and a "crony capitalist."
One thing he was not: "A nice guy."
In speeches from Des Moines to Dallas, Romney has always been careful to hedge his tough digs at Obama with a civil nod toward the president's moral character: "He's a nice guy," the Republican has often said. "He just has no idea how the private economy works." But Tuesday's speech included no such hedge — and one campaign adviser said there's a reason for that.
"[Romney] has said Obama's a nice fellow, he's just in over his head," the adviser said. "But I think the governor himself believes this latest round of attacks that have impugned his integrity and accused him of being a felon go so far beyond that pale that he's really disappointed. He believes it's time to vet the president. He really hasn't been vetted; McCain didn't do it."
Indeed, facing what the candidate and his aides believe to be a series of surprisingly ruthless, unfounded, and unfair attacks from the Obama campaign on Romney's finances and business record, the Republican's campaign is now prepared to go eye for an eye in an intense, no-holds-barred act of political reprisal, said two Romney advisers who spoke on condition of anonymity. In the next chapter of Boston's pushback — which began last week when they began labeling Obama a "liar" — very little will be off-limits, from the president's youthful drug habit, to his ties to disgraced Chicago politicians.
"I mean, this is a guy who admitted to cocaine use, had a sweetheart deal with his house in Chicago, and was associated and worked with Rod Blagojevich to get Valerie Jarrett appointed to the Senate," the adviser said. "The bottom line is there'll be counterattacks."
The reference to Obama's past drug use seems to suggest that former New Hampshire Governor John Sununu wasn't going off-script after all when he dinged the president for spending "his early years in Hawaii smoking something" during a Tuesday morning Fox News appearance.
Returning fire with personal attacks on Obama offers both emotional satisfaction to Romney and many Republicans, and an answer of sorts to relentless Democratic attacks on Romney's time as an executive. It has so far failed, however, to quiet the growing, bipartisan chorus of voices demanding Romney release more of his personal tax returns. Obama campaign officials privately admit that the Republican has, at times, been effective in beating down attacks on his business record — but they've yet to see a way out on the tax issue.
Perhaps as a solution to that problem, Romney surrogates will place increased emphasis in coming days on the "Fast and Furious" gun-running scandal at the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, hoping to drag the story back into the headlines, and highlight questions about the the Obama campaign's transparency, the Romney adviser said.
Meanwhile, Romney's aides remain particularly livid about Obama spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter's suggestion last week that Romney committed a crime by filing apparently conflicting documents to the FEC and SEC.
"[Obama's] policies have been such utter failures, the only thing he can do is to try to destroy a decent man and his wife," the adviser said. "So he gets some hack political adviser from Chicago who has nothing to point to in her own life, and tells her to call him a felon... When did our politics get to that point? I mean, it's Nixonian."
A second Romney adviser said the campaign may well benefit from Obama's invitation to remove the gloves and engage in hand-to-hand combat.
"Obama has always benefited from being able to shape the argument such that he avoided harsh negative attacks," the adviser said. "That served him well. He made other pay a price for going negative. These past couple weeks have completely squandered that positioning. They are now taunting how tough they are. OK, but once you cross that line, there is no going back."
(With reporting by Zeke J. Miller)