WASHINGTON -- It was evident, from the moment he lamented attacks on Bain Capital during an interview on "Meet The Press," that Cory Booker would find himself in the epicenter of a campaign firestorm.
The Newark mayor called criticisms of Mitt Romney's former private equity firm "nauseating" and "crap," equating them with attacks on President Barack Obama for his association with his fiery former pastor Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Within hours, Booker was backtracking in a video posted online, saying Mitt Romney's tenure at the helm of Bain was worth exploring.
That wasn't enough. The Obama campaign's top strategist, David Axelrod, was forced to reprimand Booker during an appearance on MSNBC the next day.
"In this particular instance he was just wrong," Axelrod told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell, speaking about Booker’s defense of private equity firms. "There are specific instances here that speak to an economic theory that isn’t the right economic theory for the country."
The Romney campaign, for its part, quickly put together a web video highlighting the mayor's comments and placing them alongside similar ones from other Wall Street-aligned Democrats: Obama auto czar Steven Rattner and former Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Tenn.).
"Even Obama's own supporters have had enough," the ad concluded.
By objective readings, the Romney campaign was playing the role of aggressor, driving a wedge between the populist wing of the Democratic Party and the finance types within it. But it's not entirely clear whether this is a healthy conversation for the former Massachusetts governor to have.
Every moment spent debating the efficacy of private equity -- or, simply, whether attacks on private equity are fair -- is a moment not spent talking about the president's record. The issue also creates the opportunity to discuss the specifics of Romney's business career, which the Obama campaign gladly did on Monday by questioning Bain's stewardship of American Pad & Paper company, which went bankrupt in 2000 after incurring over $400 million in debt.
"Throughout Bain Capital’s 28-year history, we have been focused on growing businesses and improving their operations," Bain Capital said in a rare public statement. "We acquired Ampad from Mead Corp. in 1992, and grew the overall business during the four years we controlled the company. The Marion plant was a challenging situation in a business that was performing well overall, growing revenues and adding jobs. Our control of Ampad ended in 1996, fully four years before it encountered financial difficulties due to overwhelming pressure from ‘big box”’ retailers, declines in paper demand, and intense foreign price pressures. Despite political attacks that emphasize the few companies that have struggled, the facts are that during Bain Capital’s ownership, revenues grew in 80 percent of the more than 350 companies in which we have invested."
All told, the term "Bain" was mentioned in 66 segments on the big three cable news channels Monday before 3:00 p.m., according to transcripts provided by the television tracker TVeyes.com. Some of those mentions were duplicative, meaning multiple mentions occurred over the course of a single segment. Others came in segment teases. But the topic clearly dominated coverage on Monday.
The question, in this case, is whether or not the ends justify the means. The Obama campaign certainly wanted to make Bain a central topic of conversation. But the path toward getting there was hardly smooth. And Republicans believe a debate over whether criticisms of Bain's practices are "just" -- especially one in which Democrats are defending the presumptive GOP nominee -- is one they can win.
"The Democrats and the media were going to talk about Bain regardless," argued one GOP aide. "They had another call on it today. With Booker we can continue to eat away at Obama's brand by turning it into an attack on job creators and a desperate cynical campaign tactic from a guy who promised he’d be different. On both those points Booker is a huge plus for us. Ampad should've been a clean hit for them. Now it's totally muddied."
Below, more Obama surrogates to keep an eye on this election cycle:
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel
Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer
Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell
Newark Mayor Cory Booker
N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.)
L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.)
Former President Bill Clinton