WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney has charged that President Barack Obama's campaign is engaging in "character assassination" by running ads that paint him as a heartless corporate raider.
Romney is making a point about not responding in kind.
The former Massachusetts governor says often -- almost daily -- that Obama is a good person who is just in over his head as president.
"This president, while he may be a nice guy, is simply not up to the task of helping guide an economy," Romney said Wednesday morning during an interview with Time magazine's Mark Halperin.
During his speech to a Latino business group around noon on Wednesday, Romney seemed to go out of his way to say kind things about Obama, though he was at the same time portraying him as weak.
"I believe the president must be troubled by the lack of progress since he took office," Romney said, referring to Obama's record on education reform.
Of course, the Obama campaign contended, as might be expected, that the president is proud of his record on the issue during a conference call arranged to respond to Romney's speech.
But Romney's way of phrasing his critique presents a contrast -- in the sense that he is not questioning the president's motives in the same way that the Obama campaign has. The Obama campaign has argued that Romney would not want to help jobless Americans get back on their feet because he doesn't care about them.
The president does care and wants to help, Romney has maintained. He just doesn't know how, or can't, the argument goes.
"Most likely, he would have liked to do more," Romney said. "But the teachers unions are one of the Democrats’ biggest donors –- and one of the president’s biggest campaign supporters. So, President Obama has been unable to stand up to union bosses -- and unwilling to stand up for our kids."
Romney's comments may be a form of damning with faint praise, but they give the appearance at least of his wanting to be civil about his opponent. The Romney campaign contends that this is just the way the candidate is: He is truly a decent person.
But the constant harping on how Obama is a nice guy clearly serves a political purpose. The Romney campaign regards the Obama campaign as looking increasingly angry -- the harsh Bain Capital ads, Vice President Joe Biden yelling, "They don't get who we are" in campaign speeches -- and wants to amplify that.
"Shouting louder and getting more angry is not very persuasive," senior Romney adviser Stuart Stevens told the Associated Press this week.
When Romney gave an example of how he takes issue with Obama's decision-making about education (with his ending a voucher program for poor students in Washington, D.C.), he used the nice guy sucker punch again.
"It must have gone against his better instincts, but the unions wanted it, so he went along," Romney said.
There's another element at play when it comes to Romney's nods to Obama's character. Romney and the Republicans are very aware that many Americans personally like Obama. Steven Law, the president of American Crossroads, the Karl Rove-founded group that is set to spend as much as $300 million in campaign ads this cycle, told The Huffington Post in March that Obama's personal dynamism is one of the biggest challenges faced by Romney.
And this week, Law told The New York Times that any "disappointment" from prior Obama supporters now considering voting against him "has to be handled carefully" by Republicans.
Romney's strategy, then, is to tell the Americans that Obama is a good guy, while trying to undermine that idea by painting him as angry and divisive.