Charles Babington

WASHINGTON: Relentless GOP criticism of a 12-day-old remark about business owners has taken a campaign toll on President Barack Obama, forcing him to defend himself and giving Republican Mitt Romney a break from steady attacks.

The development has delighted Republicans, who were eager to shift the campaign focus from Romney’s tax returns, overseas assets and Bain Capital record.

Acknowledging that the Republican’s criticisms were hitting a mark, Obama’s team rolled out two new TV ads this week in which he employed for the first time what many Democrats consider a powerful tool: the president talking directly into the camera and countering GOP claims.

“Those ads taking my words about small business out of context — they’re flat-out wrong,” Obama says in the newest ad.

Democrats say the “direct to camera” format plays to the president’s strength, and they don’t think Romney can match it. But like any strategy deployed 15 weeks before Election Day, it might lose some of its impact over time.

In the immediate future, Democrats hope Obama’s response will help him move past the flap about business owners. But Romney aides kept up the pressure Wednesday, sponsoring 24 events on the topic while Romney was overseas.

Democratic strategists acknowledged Wednesday that Obama was being hurt, at least a little, by Romney’s repeated jabs at comments the president made July 13 in Virginia, which originally drew little notice.

“If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that,” Obama said, in part. “Somebody else made that happen.”

Most GOP attacks ignored the broader context of the speech. In it, Obama discussed a favorite theme: the claim that government-assisted infrastructure including roads, research and schools help sustain American society, including private enterprise.

Romney and his allies have used the quote in countless ads, videos, statements and conference calls, painting Obama as contemptuous of hard-working entrepreneurs and business owners.

It’s a presidential topic so familiar that few reporters or Obama critics took note of the specific remarks for a few days.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help,” Obama said in the July 13 speech. He cited teachers and mentors who helped “create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges.”

“When we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together,” he said.

Late on July 16, the Romney campaign began a drumbeat of attacks quoting only the line, “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that.”

Democrats responded cautiously at first. Eventually, aides began saying Obama’s “that” referred to the infrastructure he cited elsewhere in the Virginia speech.

In an interview with a Florida TV station that aired Friday — a full week after the original remarks — Obama said: “What I said was, together we build roads and we build bridges...Anybody who actually watched the tape knows that was what I was referring to.”

Obama had planned to address the matter more fully on Friday, aides say. But that day’s mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater sidelined both campaigns for several days.

Still, Obama and his advisers realized the attacks were starting to hurt, and they filmed the 30-second response ad in the White House chief of staff’s office on Saturday. In the ad, first aired Tuesday, Obama says: “Those ads taking my words about small business out of context — they’re flat-out wrong. Of course Americans build their own businesses.”

Since then, Romney and the Republican National Committee have urged voters to review the entire speech.

Their criticisms of Obama are fair and in context, they say.