By Samuel P. Jacobs
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When Republican Mitt Romney was in Europe last week, his presidential campaign staged 18 events in one day across the United States, all based on a line that President Barack Obama had uttered a couple of weeks earlier: "You didn't build that."
The Democratic president had said those words in describing how business owners need help from society and government -- through mentors, public schools, roads and tax incentives, among other things -- to become successful.
The context hardly mattered: Romney's campaign saw an opportunity to turn Obama's sound bite into a wedge between the president and small business owners, and pounced with last week's rallies and a series of TV ads featuring small business owners criticizing the president.
Romney has followed up by blasting another Obama remark on the economy: "We've tried their plan. We tried our plan -- and it worked."
The president said that in describing how much better the economy was during Democrat Bill Clinton's presidency than in Republican George W. Bush's. Romney's campaign, however, has cast Obama's remark as a misguided claim of victory in improving the current economy.
The episodes showed that in today's campaign, it's not the sound bite that matters -- it's the bite.
Nearly any message that a campaign can put forward to knock a dent in the other side is deemed worthy of pursuing, often regardless of its true meaning or context. Republican and Democratic analysts say that for many voters, the result is that candidates whose words have been twisted or taken out of context can seem almost irrational and cartoonish -- and wildly at odds with the image that many voters get when they see the remarks in context.
Obama's team is no stranger to taking an ill-advised line of Romney's, carving away the context, then using the statement to try to cast the Republican as an out-of-touch rich guy.
During the New Hampshire primary campaign in January, Romney made the case for having options in health insurance by declaring, "I like being able to fire people who provide services to me."
The Democratic National Committee put together an online video that essentially mocked Romney as someone who enjoys firing employees at a time when millions of Americans are struggling to find work.
Analysts say that such incidents earlier this year set the tone for the no-holds-barred approach to messaging in the 2012 campaign. Some say the situation has been fueled in part by Twitter, whose 140-character limit on messages can strip away the context from reports about a provocative utterance.
There's also the monotony of covering the campaign, which causes reporters to rejoice in any blip of news that is a departure from a campaign's message of the day.
"I can't remember a campaign in which the number of instances taken out of context has been as high as there have been as this year," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director for the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, which tracks out-of-context advertisements at FlackCheck.Org.
ECHOES OF 2008
As some Republicans are quick to point out, the out-of-context attacks of the 2012 campaign echo those of 2008, when Obama's team attacked Republican rival John McCain by twisting the meaning of McCain's words.
At a time when the economy was melting down and Wall Street was taking a huge dive, Obama's campaign blasted McCain for declaring that "the fundamentals of our economy are strong."
It seemed a terribly off-key thing for a White House hopeful to say during a financial crisis.
But McCain had praised the economy's fundamentals while acknowledging the difficulty the nation was going through. "These are very, very difficult times," McCain said at the time. "I promise you, we will never put America in this position again. We will clean up Wall Street."
That didn't stop Obama's team from using McCain's "fundamentals" comment to cast McCain as being disengaged on the economy.
Romney, too, is a repeat context offender.
His first ad attacking Obama, released in November 2011, used a clip of Obama quoting an anonymous McCain aide during the 2008 race who had said that "if we (meaning McCain's campaign) keep talking about the economy, we're going to lose."
Romney's campaign quoted Obama as if the president had said those words about his own campaign.
When the Obama campaign cried foul, Romney's team acknowledged taking the line out of context and then essentially said: So what?
Even as he noted that the words weren't Obama's, Romney said that after Obama's attack on McCain in the previous campaign was now fair to use against the Democrat: Obama was now was getting just deserts.
"What's sauce for the goose is now sauce for the gander," Romney said.
‘WHINERS NEVER WIN'
Democrats believe - or at least hope -- that Romney's most recent attacks will undermine his credibility and hurt his efforts to improve his favorability among voters, an area in which he continues to trail Obama, according to recent surveys.
"In the battleground states," or politically divided states that are particularly crucial in the November 6 election, "Romney is hurting," said Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein. "This is the kind of stuff that is not going to improve his image."
Not so fast, say some Republicans including those who were slow to join the Romney bandwagon.
"I personally believe Obama meant what he said" about how businesses are built, said Rick Tyler, who as a longtime adviser to former House speaker Newt Gingrich spent much of the Republican primary accusing Romney of distorting Gingrich's statements and record.
For Tyler, and many others, the best evidence that Obama "meant what he said" is what they see as the president's government-centered worldview.
Republicans predict Romney won't discard the "you didn't build that" attack any time soon.
They point to a recent Gallup poll showing Obama's sinking ratings among business owners as a sign that Americans side with Romney's view.
"I think we will hear about this until the bitter end," said David Carney, a Republican strategist who advises Rick Perry.
"Whiners never win," Carney added, echoing Obama's own allies who needled the Romney camp for objecting to the treatment of Romney's business record.
The whining, however, has been good business for one group: fact-checkers, whose findings have entered into campaign ads themselves. In the argument over context and truth, The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler and the operators of Factcheck.Org have become the campaign's preferred scorekeepers.
Of course, Romney and Obama only mention the referees when they agree with the call. Sometimes, it seems, context does matter.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)