Mitt Romney's venture capitalist record became a political tug of war Monday as US President Barack Obama painted his rival as a corporate raider despite some high-profile Democrats voicing dismay over the strategy.
The White House swiftly tried to close ranks among Democrats after a rising star in the party, Newark Mayor Cory Booker, denounced Obama's "nauseating" ads savaging Romney's record running private equity firm Bain Capital.
Romney's campaign, as expected in this tit-for-tat election season, ripped the incumbent for his ad which they described as an "assault on the free enterprise system," then sought to make Booker an unlikely hero of the right by rolling out an "I Stand with Cory" petition bound to taunt Democrats.
But while Republicans argued that Obama was using Romney and Bain to veil his own poor performance on the economy, the president insisted the issues were paramount in November's election.
"This is not a distraction. This is what this campaign is going to be about," he told reporters at the NATO summit in Chicago.
Obama stressed that while private equity's goal of maximizing profits had its benefits, the broader presidential challenge was "how do we create an economy where everybody, top to bottom, has a shot at success."
"So if your main argument for how to grow the economy is, 'I knew how to make a lot of money for investors,' then you're missing what this job is about."
Obama's ad, which rolls out this week across five swing states, shows former steel plant employees slamming Romney, now the presumptive Republican nominee, as a "vampire" and "job destroyer" for acquiring their factory in the 1990s, leading it to bankruptcy and pocketing hefty profits.
But even as Republicans insisted the anti-capitalist tone of the ads would backfire, the Obama camp kept hammering away.
Obama unveiled a new video Monday portraying Romney as a pitiless multimillionaire who forced another firm, Bain-acquired office products supplier Ampad of Indiana, into bankruptcy and "walked away with" $100 million in profits.
"To me Mitt Romney takes from the poor and the middle class and gives to the rich," laid off factory worker Jerry Rayburn said in the video. "He's just the opposite of Robin Hood."
Booker had barreled into the fray Sunday when he called out the president for targeting Romney's time at Bain.
"If you look at the totality of Bain Capital's record, they've done a lot to support businesses," Booker told NBC's "Meet the Press."
He said he was "very uncomfortable" with the attacks as well as with tactics by a conservative group that had planned a race-fueled anti-Obama ad campaign. Romney repudiated it after the plans were leaked.
"This kind of stuff is nauseating to me on both sides," Booker said. "Enough is enough."
Obama avoided commenting directly on the fissures among some surrogates, other than to commend Booker as "an outstanding mayor." But re-election campaign director David Axelrod rapped Booker for going rogue.
"In this particular instance, he was just wrong," Axelrod told MSNBC.
With Romney touting his business acumen as a key asset for turning the US economy around, "it behooves us to ask, 'exactly what did you do,' and some of these cases are disturbing and they deserve to be looked at," Axelrod added.
Republicans pounced on Booker's original comments as an example of Democratic unease with Obama's ding on capitalism.
"They have taken to spewing a nonstop stream of false attacks against free enterprise," said Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Reince Priebus, mocking the president by saying Obama's "private business experience hasn't seen the inside of a lemonade stand."
The RNC unveiled its own video with clips from Booker and others as the voiceover asks: "Have you had enough of President Obama's attacks on free enterprise? His own key supporters have."
Democratic former congressman Harold Ford Jr complicated matters by going on MSNBC on Monday to say "I agree with (Booker), private equity is not a bad thing."
And former Obama economic adviser Steven Rattner spoke out last week, saying "I don't think there is anything that Bain Capital did that they need to be embarrassed about."
Romney claims to have created 100,000 jobs at Bain, a record he says positions him to reboot the crashed US economy.
For many Democrats, he's a poster boy for corporate excess, which many Americans blame for the country's economic woes.