ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. - Sometimes a line of attack goes viral, and a campaign just surfs it.
Consider Elisa Miyares, who went to a Mitt Romney rally here last week on the lawn of Flagler College with a handmade poster-board message: "I Made This Sign, President Obama."
Ever since July 13, the Romney campaign has stoked and benefited from a swell of anger and derision among conservatives, after the president said: "If you've got a business - you didn't build that. Somebody else made that happen."
Obama was speaking against the Republican's proposal to extend and cut further the Bush-era tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. He made the case that government is not the enemy, and that public investments such as schools, roads, and the Internet help lift entrepreneurs.
The GOP has happily quoted Obama for weeks in TV ads, speeches, and everything else, though independent fact-checkers say his sound bite was ripped from its context. But that has only emboldened Republicans, who say the words bespoke a deeper truth about his lack of understanding of, and hostility to, business.
"He's a socialist. This is the way he feels," said Miyares, a landscape painter from Jacksonville. "It doesn't make him a bad person; it's just that I don't think that's the way this country wants to go. My husband and his family left Cuba when he was very young, so it's very frightening for me."
Now Miyares is finding it hard to discuss politics with her more liberal relatives.
"They've bought into the demonization of the Republican Party," she said. "I recycle, I think of myself as an environmentalist, I do yoga, I garden. I'm an artist. I just don't see Republicans as these mean, nasty people."
And the "you didn't build it" narrative continues to resonate across the land, regardless of whether it's based on an accurate rendering of Obama's quote, because it speaks to the Republican emphasis on individual initiative and limited government, one side of the great philosophical debate underlying the race.
Last week, for instance, caterer Ross Murty, co-owner of the Village Corner Deli in Davenport, Iowa, wore a Romney T-shirt that said, "Government didn't build my business. I did," as he served beef brisket and pulled pork to reporters traveling with the president.
Romney, at the St. Augustine rally, insisted Obama's context had been "even worse than the quote." He noted that Obama had said, "There are plenty of smart people out there . . . a whole bunch of hardworking people," which Romney considers dismissive. He said an honor student, after all, doesn't owe her success to the bus driver who takes her to school.
But in this campaign, a twisting of the president's words is only a misdemeanor compared with recent examples of felony battery on the truth.
Take the ad introduced by the Obama-supporting super PAC Priorities USA Action, in which a steelworker blames his wife's cancer death on the decision by Romney's private-equity firm, Bain Capital, to close the plant where he worked, canceling his family's health insurance. The implication is false: the man lost his job several years before his wife's illness. Obama's campaign refused to denounce the ad, pointing to the legal independence of the super PAC - though the campaign had featured the same steelworker in a conference call.
Then there is the ad Romney's campaign ran in swing states last week, charging Obama with eliminating work requirements for welfare recipients. He didn't. And the recent spot from Obama's campaign that accused Romney of wanting to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape and incest. He does not.
When you're locked in combat to save all you consider holy, the literal truth doesn't seem all that important anymore. Win at all costs. Keep a boot on the other guy's throat; crush his windpipe if he tries to stand up. Have the campaigns crossed a line? If so, there seems to be no penalty. Is there even a line?
By Tuesday the campaign slid further south. Vice President Biden, speaking in Danville, Va. - capital of the Confederacy in the rebellion's last days - told an audience of blacks and whites that Republicans who oppose new Wall Street regulations "want to put you all back in chains." So Romney called for Obama to take his campaign of "division and anger and hate" back to Chicago.
Then an Obama campaign spokesman huffed that Romney had become "unhinged."
So much for talk of a loftier tone now that Paul Ryan is on Romney's ticket.
Contact Thomas Fitzgerald
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