BOWLING GREEN, Ohio/WASHINGTON Mitt Romney accused President Barack Obama on Wednesday of demonizing business success, as the Republican tried to ignore questions about his personal finances that threaten to damage his presidential bid.
Weeks of attacks by Obama about his taxes and business past are preventing Romney from focusing voters' minds on the White House's handling of the weak economy.
Some senior Republicans worry that Romney is becoming boxed in by the Obama team, just at the time in the race when many Americans begin to tune in and form clearer opinions about candidates before the November 6 election.
But a New York Times/CBS News poll showed the race essentially tied with 45 percent expressing support for Romney if the election were held today compared with 43 percent for Obama.
The nationwide survey of 982 registered voters between July 11 and 16 showed support for Obama's handling of the economy taking a noticeable hit. Only 39 percent of respondents backed the president on the issue compared with 55 percent who did not.
A similar survey in April showed 44 percent behind Obama on the economy with 48 percent of respondents not happy with the way he was managing it.
Speaking in the swing state of Ohio, Romney accused his Democratic rival of antagonism toward successful businesses.
"This idea of criticizing and attacking success, of demonizing those in all walks of life who have been successful is so foreign to us we simply don't understand it," Romney told a townhall-style meeting.
He was referring to a comment by Obama in Virginia last week that companies cannot succeed alone, but also need public services like roads and bridges.
Multimillionaire Romney did not mention calls for him to release more tax returns amid suggestions from Democrats that the former private equity executive has something to hide.
Some Republicans fret that by not dealing with the tax issue head on Romney is allowing himself to be defined negatively instead of moving on. He has a good argument that he is a proven job creator, a family man and a former governor who navigated a difficult political environment in largely Democratic Massachusetts, Republicans say.
"I think they totally botched it," said a Republican strategist, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "I think they had a chance to deal with this months ago during the primary. And when this came up initially, they just let it hang out there."
Romney released tax information from 2010 and 2011 earlier this year when Republican primary opponents accused him of paying less than ordinary Americans.
Questions about why Romney paid a seemingly low tax rate of around 15 percent swirled for a few weeks but died away until the Obama campaign brought them up again recently.
But the former CEO of Bain Capital has refused to make public any more tax returns for fear of diverting attention further away from his message that Obama is failing to create jobs.
"We're not going to give them more information they can use to distort, twist and lie about the governor's record," said one Romney aide.
STUCK IN A BIND
Romney seems stuck in a bind with no real good outcome: release more tax returns and risk the political fallout over what is in them, or hold them back and be portrayed as having something to hide.
"They've either got to decide to blow through it and talk about other things, or if they are going to release them, do them all at once, let people see them and move on. They've got a to make a decision and I'm sure they're weighing all the pros and cons," said Dave Carney, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist.
Doing nothing may only strengthens the Democrats' case.
"I think he (Romney) sees a scenario where he spends weeks explaining the intricacies of his tax returns and they don't want to do it. However, at this point I think it's fair to say that Democrats are winning this argument right now," said Jennifer Duffy, a political analyst at the non-partisan Cook Political Report.
Obama's campaign suggested in an ad this week that Romney may have paid no taxes at all in some years, although it offered no evidence for this.
For the second day in a row, Romney was greeted by enthusiastic crowds in a Rust Belt swing state, after campaigning in Pennsylvania on Tuesday.
Campaign rhetoric has hardened in recent days with Obama telling his opponent to "stop whining," but Romney calmed down a supporter at Wednesday's town hall meeting
He answered a member of the audience who referred to Obama as "this monster."
"That's not a term I would use," Romney said.
The Democratic National Committee accused a Romney of not being straight about his taxes in a video that featured a horse in a dressage competition - a reference to his wife's horse which is appearing at the London Olympics.
Entitled "Mitt Dancing Around The Issues", the video shows Romney being questioned about his finances, while the horse prances to jaunty music.
(Writing by Alistair Bell; Editing by Jackie Frank and Christopher Wilson)