01/12/2012 10:25 am ET Updated Mar 13, 2012

Mitt in the Minefield

Political campaigns frequently have to maneuver through message minefields to position their candidate precisely where they want them in the voters' minds and try to keep them there as the campaign rolls out. "How can we characterize our candidate so the public perceives him/her as: (Pick one) a. the most experienced; b. the most independent; c. the most decisive; d. the most patriotic -- you get the idea. Then, every word uttered by the candidate and campaign builds on that positioning.

The goal is to avoid the mines, but occasionally even the best equipped, most heavily armored and carefully driven campaign vehicle hits one. The question is whether the campaign, even damaged, can continue to move forward, or whether it's lost a tread and can only sit there and rev its engine.

In the Republican campaign for the presidency, Mitt Romney has been very carefully positioned as the candidate with years of business experience, which means he knows how to create jobs, which gives him a strong point to use against President Obama, who we are told doesn't know anything about creating jobs; in fact, who doesn't even understand how the economy works, which actually makes him amazingly simple-minded for someone who was elected Editor of the Harvard Law Review.

The Romney campaign decided that focusing on business experience in the Republican Primary made a lot more sense than talking about Mitt's resume in government for several reasons. The public remains focused on jobs and the economy, and Mitt is the only Republican candidate with any serious business experience. On the government leadership side, he's batting one for three in elections, losing his first campaign for the U.S. Senate, winning election as Governor of Massachusetts and then losing the 2008 Republican Presidential race to John McCain. And, if he focused on his record as Governor, there's that healthcare thing. So it's Mitt the Businessman.

But then that nasty Newt Gingrich had to go and bring up the fact that Bain Capital, where Romney spent most of his business career, was a private equity firm. Firms like Bain Capital are essentially corporate cannibals. They make most of their money buying up businesses, usually businesses that are underperforming or undercapitalized, stripping them down to bare bones to improve their financial profile and then selling them off at a profit. Stripping down a company to make it look more profitable is sort of like shucking an ear of corn. It usually means getting rid of a lot of employees. And all too frequently, the company that remains after it's been shucked goes bankrupt because there's not much left to operate. Bain Capital was not exactly an engine of job creation.

Most of the profit goes to the investors who helped the equity firm buy the business, and of course, to the principals of the equity firm itself. That's how Mitt Romney got to be worth somewhere north of $250 million. There's certainly nothing wrong with the process. It's not illegal. But the real picture of private equity firms and leveraged buyouts doesn't fit very well in the warm and helpful business frame Mitt has been showing the public. He's described some sort of multi-billion dollar rescue organization that looks for businesses needing help, adopts them, feeds and clothes them until they regain their health, and then turns them loose to return to their families -- a cross between the Chamber of Commerce and the animal shelter.

It turns out Bain Capital's patron saint was more likely St. Gordon of Gekko than Francis of Assisi. It's disappointing to learn that the sleek, well-fed dog everyone's been admiring got that way by devouring all the smaller, weaker dogs in the neighborhood. And it's hard to admit that anyone who looks as nice and clean-cut as Mitt Romney could have made millions of dollars through corporate cannibalism.

The initial response of the Romney campaign has been to puff up in outrage and accuse rival campaigns of running against capitalism itself. For those who number unfettered capitalism among the world's great religions, it must come as a profound shock that someone could find any part of the business process less than divinely-inspired.

The full measure of the Romney campaign's strength and substance will be if it continues its momentum, even with the damage, through South Carolina and Florida. The message may have to be tweaked a bit, maybe even a slight change of direction. And, if the Romney campaign gets through this mine field in one piece, there will be a very brief opportunity to regroup, perhaps reposition, and get ready for the next minefield.