About three-quarters of the president's advertising has been critical of Romney as Obama struggles to turn the election into a choice between him and his rival, rather than a referendum on his own handling of the weak economy. Obama's television ad spending dwarfs the Romney campaign's so far by a ratio of 4-1 or more. It is at rough parity with the Republican challenger and several outside GOP-led organizations combined. They appear positioned to outspend the president and his allies this fall, perhaps heavily.
The latest attack ad, which began airing Friday, accuses the Republican of favoring a 25 percent tax cut for millionaires, tax breaks for oil companies and corporations that move jobs overseas, and a tax increase for working families. By contrast, it says, the president wants "the wealthy to pay a little more so the middle class pays less."
Democrats and even some Republicans agree the effort to cast Romney as an unfit steward for the economy shows sign of making some headway. Yet GOP strategists hasten to add that the former Massachusetts governor has ample time to counter, particularly with recent signs of a struggling economy and the fall campaign yet to begin.
"Despite all of the negative advertising from the Obama campaign, polling numbers are exactly where they were before they started this onslaught," the Romney campaign said in a memo distributed this week, referring to a rolling average of polls.
Yet Romney released a scathing ad on Thursday designed to respond to some of Obama's claims, the sort of rebuttal that often can signal concern that an attack is hitting home. In 2008, "candidate Obama lied about Hillary Clinton," the ad said, adding there was no truth to the charges that Romney was associated with companies that outsourced jobs.
Some surveys suggest shifts in the electoral landscape. A recent poll by Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Romney has lost ground in the last month on the question of which candidate was better able to improve the economy.
"They wanted to define Romney before he could define himself, and by every indication they're doing a very effective job of that" said Jim Jordan, a Democratic strategist who was campaign manager for Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry in 2004.
According to strategists in both parties, focus groups with voters indicate the public knows relatively little about Romney's background, making the subject generally fertile territory for anyone trying to create an impression.
Romney has twice run for president. But even in this year's Republican primaries, his own campaign spent less money on television ads than Restore Our Future, a superPAC that aided him. Most of the outside group's efforts consisted of attacks on Romney's GOP rivals, rather than testimonials to his own background and character.