WOLFEBORO, N.H. — Mitt Romney's campaign said Sunday that President Barack Obama is willing to say anything to win a second term and should say he's sorry for attacks on the Republican's successful career at a private equity firm. "No, we will not apologize," the president responded, adding that if Romney wants credit for his business leadership, he also needs to take responsibility.
Questions about Romney's tenure at Bain Capital and the fortune he earned there have dogged the former Massachusetts governor as Obama and his allies have said the Boston-based firm shipped jobs overseas. Romney insists he left the company in February 1999 to take over the Olympic Games in Salt Lake City, but documents suggest he was still in charge as late as 2001.
Romney's advisers, trying to explain the discrepancies between Romney's account and federal documents, offered fresh explanations to shift the campaign back to more comfortable ground.
"He actually retired retroactively at that point," Romney adviser Ed Gillespie said. "He ended up not going back to the firm after his time in Salt Lake City. So he was actually retired from Bain."
A second adviser, Kevin Madden, said Romney had no choice but to have his name listed on Security and Exchange Commission documents as he sought to transfer the company's leadership to partners.
"The reason that there is a document that had ... his signature is because, during that transition from 1999 to 2002 ... there was a duty to sign those documents," Madden said.
The exact role Romney played at the firm between 1999 and 2001 is important not only because critics have raised questions about his truthfulness, but also because Bain was sending jobs overseas during that period.
The president said Romney must square his explanation.
"Mr. Romney claims he's Mr. Fix-It for the economy because of his business experience, so I think voters entirely legitimately want to know what is exactly his business experience," Obama told WAVY-TV in Portsmouth, Va., in an interview taped Saturday and posted on the station's website Sunday
"Mr. Romney is now claiming he wasn't there at the time except his filings with the SEC listing says he was the CEO, chairman and president of the company."
Obama's advisers said that story won't sell voters.
"Either you're the CEO, president, chairman of the board of Bain Capital as you attest to the SEC or he's telling the American people he bears no responsibility for that," deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said. "Both those things can't be true. Either you're in charge or you're not."
Romney has insisted he was not involved with Bain during the time it sent jobs overseas and had no day-to-day responsibility for the company. He said he wanted an apology from the president for implying otherwise.
"''No, we will not apologize," Obama told the TV station.
Cutter said Romney should take the advice — stop whining — that he gave his opponents during the Republican primary.
"Instead of whining about what the Obama campaign is saying, why don't you just put the facts out there and let people decide instead of trying to hide them?" Cutter said.
Documents place Romney in charge of Bain from 1999 to 2001, a period in which the company outsourced jobs and ran companies that fell into bankruptcy. Romney has tried to distance himself from this period in Bain's history, saying on financial disclosure forms he had no active role in Bain as of February 1999.
But at least three times since then, Bain listed Romney as the company's "controlling person," as well as its "sole shareholder, sole director, chief executive officer and president." One of those documents — as late as February 2001 — lists Romney's "principal occupation" as Bain's managing director.
"He's very willing to take credit for everything good that he thinks happened after that point that Bain Capital was involved in, but he's not willing to take responsibility for this," Obama strategist David Axelrod said, echoing comments Obama and his allies leveled in a weeklong blitz about Bain.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said Obama's attacks cheapen the presidency and are an attempt to distract voters from Obama's record in office.
"With these attacks, it shows that he's just a small politician and running on small-ball politics at a time when our country is facing grave, grave challenges," Ayotte said.
Added Gillespie: "We now know this president will say or do anything to keep the highest office in the land — even if it means demeaning the highest office in the land."
Romney's campaign released a television ad Sunday asking why the president had stopped talking about hope and change, his signature message during the 2008 campaign, and criticizing him for a barrage of negative ads against Romney.
Obama's allies also pushed Romney to release more than the one year of tax returns he has shared. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former top White House aide, noted Romney released 23 years of taxes to 2008 GOP nominee John McCain so he could be considered as a vice presidential nominee.
"John McCain's people looked at it and went with Sarah Palin" as the No. 2 on the ticket that year. "Whatever is in there is far worse than the first year," Emanuel said. "The Romney campaign isn't stupid. They have decided that it's better to get attacked on a lack of transparency, lack of accountability to the American people, versus telling you what's in those taxes."
Romney has refused and says that no amount of disclosure would satisfy his critics.
But some in his party said the debate over Romney's wealth is distracting from the campaign.
"He should release the tax returns tomorrow. It's crazy. You've got to release six, eight, 10 years of back tax returns," said conservative Bill Kristol, joining the Republicans who want to turn the page on stories about Romney's vast personal wealth. "Take the hit for a day or two."
Unless, as Obama's team hints, the returns prove disqualifying.
"The costs of not releasing the returns are clear," conservative columnist George Will said. "Therefore, he must have calculated there are higher costs to releasing them."
Gillespie appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press" and CNN's "State of the Union. Cutter and Madden were on CBS' "Face the Nation." Axelrod spoke to CNN. Kristol was interviewed on "Fox News Sunday." Emanuel, Ayotte and Will appeared on ABC's "This Week."
Associated Press writer Michele Salcedo in Washington contributed to this report.