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Obama won't attack private equity?

April 19, 2012: 11:07 AM ET

Is private equity off limits in November?

FORTUNE -- Blackstone Group (BX) president Tony James held court with the media this morning, prior to his firm's quarterly earnings call with analysts. One of the questions touched on presidential politics, and if James believes Mitt Romney's expected nomination will result in further attacks against the private equity industry. His reply, in part:

"There were some pretty bad hits to the industry. I thought the Newt Gingrich film was just awful… I would hope that was a low, but I'd expect the industry will take more blows… The Obama campaign has actually said it won't go after the industry, but I'd expect the SuperPACs will."

I followed up to ask when the Obama campaign said it wouldn't go after private equity, since I hadn't seen it anywhere. Could it have been said during a private conversation, given that James is a big Obama backer who plans to hold a fundraiser at his Connecticut home next month?

James replied by claiming to have read it in one of the New York papers last week, but I did a kick Factiva search and came up empty. So I went back a bit further, and found a February Bloomberg story about how Obama campaign Jim Messina met with major Democratic donors to assure them that Obama  "plans to run against Romney, not the industry that made the former governor of Massachusetts millions."

James is not mentioned in the story, but my understanding is that he was among the attendees. And he probably also read the story, thus conflating the two.

What remains to be seen, however, is if the Obama campaign can keep this promise to Democratic Party donors like James. How do you run against Romney without also running against private equity, particularly when Romney talks far more about his business background than about his gubernatorial record? Is Obama really going to steer clear of well-worn arguments that private equity executives destroy jobs and pay too little in taxes -- arguments that generated some traction for Romney's GOP primary challengers? Is there a way to go specifically after Bain without some shrapnel also hitting peers like Blackstone Group?

Or is James' larger point more salient: In an age of SuperPACS, the specific messenger no longer matters.

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Dan Primack
Dan Primack
Senior Editor, Fortune

Dan Primack joined Fortune.com in September 2010 to cover deals and dealmakers, from Wall Street to Sand Hill Road. Previously, Dan was an editor-at-large with Thomson Reuters, where he launched both peHUB.com and the peHUB Wire email service. In a past journalistic life, Dan ran a community paper in Roxbury, Massachusetts. He currently lives just outside of Boston.

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