Mitt Romney's campaign increased pressure on President Obama on Thursday to denounce an ad from a super-PAC supporting the president that linked the presumptive GOP nominee to the death of woman from cancer.
Romney said in a radio interview that the ad was "wrong and inaccurate" and that the Obama campaign should be "embarrassed" the super-PAC, Priorities USA, is standing by the ad.
Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki, asked about the calls to reject the ad, volleyed back during a gaggle with reporters on Air Force One but didn't call for the ad to be taken down. She emphasized the campaign was prohibited from coordinating directly with Priorities USA and moved to change the subject, charging the Romney campaign with airing deceptive ads of their own.
"We know that there is a debate that is going on out there between ads on the air waves ... but there has been a bit of an apples to oranges comparison here when we are comparing an ad that has not even run by an outside group we have nothing to do with, and an ad that is the basis of Mitt Romney's campaign right now, that is a bold faced lie about the president's record on welfare and I think that is frustrating for us," she said.
Psaki was referring to a Romney campaign ad that charged Obama with rolling back welfare reforms made under former President Clinton.
But the severe nature of the super-PAC ad means that it is unlikely Obama will be able to avoid questions about whether it should be pulled. The ad features a steelworker who claims his wife died after he lost his job and health insurance due to Bain Capital, the venture capital firm once run by Romney, buying his company and shutting it down.
Independent fact-checkers have noted that the woman died six years after Bain bought the husband's company, had her own health insurance through her employer, and that Romney was not in charge of the investment firm when her husband was let go.
And, for a president whose major selling point is likability, association with such a controversial spot could do serious damage to his brand.
Further complicating Obama's effort to remain removed from the ad was Psaki's admittance that the campaign was familiar with Joe Soptic, the widower featured in the commercial. On Wednesday, Psaki had said the campaign was unfamiliar with his story — until journalists then pointed out he had been featured in an Obama ad and conference call with reporters.
"No one is denying that he was in one of our campaign ads," she said Thursday. "He was on a conference call telling his story, which speaks to what many, many people in this country have gone through as there have been layoffs and they've had their benefits reduced."
The Romney campaign jumped on her admission.
“The Obama campaign acknowledged today that it ran a television ad and hosted a conference call that promoted the same despicable attack that was used in a discredited ad run by President Obama’s super-PAC. The Obama campaign has now admitted that it lied to the media and the American people in a disgraceful attempt to conceal their connection to this shameful smear," said Romney campaign spokesman Ryan Williams in a statement.
Romney's team also circulated to reporters a Buzzfeed story noting that Obama's campaign had highlighted the claim from Spotic before in a slideshow about Bain and GST Steel. And Romney campaign manager Matt Rhoades sent out a fundraising appeal citing the ad, calling it "a new low."
In a speech earlier in the day in Colorado, Obama alluded to — and criticized — the increasingly negative tenor of the campaign.
"Over the next three months, you will see more negative ads, more money spent than you've ever seen in your life," Obama said. "I mean, these super-PACs, these guys are writing $10 million checks and giving them to Mr. Romney's supporters."
But the president did not address the ad directly, and so far his campaign has sidestepped the issue of whether Priorities USA should decide against airing the ad. Earlier in the campaign, Team Obama began phasing out attacks on Romney's tenure at Bain Capital — which many fact-checkers also criticized as unfair — after the president saw a sharp spike in his unfavorability rating.
And it could be that the Obama campaign thinks that ultimately, feeding into the narrative of Romney as a callous businessman does more with independent and swing voters than keeping the president's hands clean would. Former White House aide Bill Burton, who runs Priorities USA, defended the ad Wednesday night to CNN.
"We're not saying Mitt Romney is culpable for that," Burton said. "What we're saying is that Joe Soptic was fired from his job, and as a result of that, he wasn’t able to get — he wasn’t able to hold onto healthcare benefits that were promised to him. And as a result, when his wife got sick, he didn't have healthcare."
Still, Republicans are aggressively denouncing the commercial, believing that they can exploit a misstep from the president's allies to undermine one of his key advantages — likability — over Romney. The Republican National Committee released a new Web ad Thursday accusing the president's campaign of lying about having no knowledge of the ad, and questioning what else Obama could be deceiving the American public about.
And former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu, a prominent Mitt Romney surrogate, told Fox News on Thursday the ad "reveals the character of deceit in this campaign."
“What matters in the end is that people are now knowing Obama will lie, his campaign will lie and his PAC will lie, and the fact is they’re going to see 89 more days of dishonesty coming from these people,” Sununu said.
But Obama's refusal to take a stance on the issue could actually be taking a page out of Romney's playbook. The super-PAC supporting Romney's campaign was repeatedly criticized by other Republican candidates during the GOP primary for running unfair ads, but the former Massachusetts governor repeatedly emphasized that he could not coordinate with super-PACs.
"As you know, that's something which is completely out of the control of the candidates," Romney said during the South Carolina debate in January. "One of the things I decry in the current financial system that gets behind campaigns is that we have these voting requirements that put these super-PACs in power that say things we disagree with. And I’ll tell ya, there’ve been some attacks on me that have just been outrageous and completely inaccurate and have been shown to be inaccurate. That’s the nature of the process."
And the Romney campaign itself has issued campaign ads that deceptively edit remarks from the president to feed its campaign narrative. In fact, the campaign bragged about an ad released in November that insinuated that a quote by Arizona Sen. John McCainJohn McCainMcCain says he hasn't met with Trump since inauguration Overnight Defense: General warns State Department cuts would hurt military | Bergdahl lawyers appeal Trump motion | Senators demand action after nude photo scandal Senate lawmakers eye hearing next week for Air Force secretary: report MORE — Obama's 2008 rival for the White House — read by the president was his own words.
"We want to engage the president," Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom told Slate. "We look at him as our rival. It's all deliberate; it was all very intentional."
There's also evidence that personal attacks on Romney could be gaining traction. In a poll released Thursday by CNN and ORC, those who view the presumptive Republican nominee negatively climbed from 42 percent to 49 percent over the past month.
This story was updated at 6:49 p.m.