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Romney demands Obama apology over Bain attacks

By Steve Holland and Alister Bull

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney struck back on Friday against attacks over his business record that are pulling him further away from his campaign message that the White House is mishandling the economy.

In a blitz of television interviews, Romney demanded an apology from President Barack Obama for his campaign's assertion that the Republican may have committed a felony by misrepresenting his position at private equity firm Bain Capital.

"It's ridiculous," Romney told Fox News in response to the charge. "And of course it's beneath the dignity of the presidency and of his campaign."

The Republican challenger has appeared flatfooted in beating back Democrats' accusations that he was involved in firing workers and outsourcing U.S. jobs to foreign countries while at Bain Capital.

Romney has slipped in opinion polls ahead of the November 6 election and his campaign added two Washington veterans to its media relations team on Friday after criticism from fellow Republicans for communications missteps.

Romney was booed by a mostly black audience at the NAACP annual convention this week and earlier gave out mixed messages about whether a key part of Obama's healthcare law does or does not create a new tax.

What drew Romney's ire on Friday was a charge from Obama deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter that he might have committed a felony by giving wrong information to the Securities and Exchange Commission about how long he spent at Bain.

Romney told ABC News that Obama "needs to rein in these people who are running out of control."

"He (Obama) sure as heck ought to say that he's sorry for the kinds of attacks that are coming from his team," Romney said.

Romney was put on the spot by a Boston Globe newspaper report citing federal documents as showing he was listed as Bain CEO and sole shareholder in the three years to 2002, a time when he says he no longer ran the company.

The timing matters because Obama's campaign has accused him of being responsible for the firing of workers and bankruptcies at Bain-owned companies during those years.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest, traveling with Obama in Virginia, declined comment on Romney's demand for an apology.

MORE DISTRACTION

It was the latest issue to distract Romney from his focus on Obama's failure to reduce unemployment, running at 8.2 percent. He has struggled for the right messages on healthcare and immigration as the experienced Obama campaign based in Chicago maneuvers the news agenda better. Romney however has overtaken his rival in fundraising.

Two national polls this week showed Obama opening up a wider gap over his opponent. A Reuters/Ipsos survey had the former Massachusetts governor trailing the incumbent by 6 points, although other polls have them in a closer race.

Polls in swing states show negative portrayals of Romney as an out-of-touch rich man are working in Obama's favor.

Romney's campaign is considering announcing its choice for vice presidential running mate soon so as to win back some of the campaign momentum from the other team.

Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's name surfaced briefly as a possible vice presidential pick but faded quickly as an aide said on Friday she was still not interested in the position.

Analysts said members of Romney's team might have floated the Rice speculation as a way to change the subject from the candidate's wealth and business history.

"I think this is a clever diversion by the Romney folks after what has clearly been an off week for them," Republican strategist Ford O'Connell said.

The Obama campaign has orchestrated an intense focus on Romney's wealth, demanding he release many years of tax returns to explain whether he helped build his fortune through offshore bank accounts that avoided taxes.

"He continues to try and find some way to attack me other than to talk about policy. And it's time to talk about what it will take to get America working again," Romney said.

Obama himself launched an attack on Friday, saying Romney should clarify whether he worked for Bain longer than previously described.

"Ultimately Mr. Romney, I think, is going to have to answer those questions, because if he aspires to being president one of the things you learn is, you are ultimately responsible for the conduct of your operations," he told ABC television affiliate WJLA.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell and Lisa Shumaker)

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