ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, now to a question that is haunting Mitt Romney. When officially did he leave the private equity firm that he founded and ran, and how final was his departure? Today, the Boston Globe reported new details. It says that after Romney left Boston to run the Salt Lake City Olympics, he still signed dozens of documents for Bain Capital. That is despite financial disclosure forums that say Romney, quote, "has not been involved in the operations" of the firm in any way after February 1999. NPR's Scott Horsley has this story on the political challenge this issue poses for the Republican candidate for president.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: It's been a week now since Romney's TV blitzkrieg, in which he tried to put to rest the questions about his role at Bain Capital. SEC documents filed as late as 2002 list Romney as the CEO. But in interviews with CNN and others, Romney insisted he was not responsible for Bain's decision-making once he left to run the Olympics.

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MITT ROMNEY: There's a difference between being a shareholder - an owner, if you will - and being a person who's running an entity. And I had no role whatsoever in managing Bain Capital after February of 1999.

HORSLEY: The Obama campaign has scoffed at this distinction, producing a Web video in which ordinary citizens raise their eyebrows at Romney's legalese. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, who studies political communication at the Annenberg Center for Public Policy, says it's no wonder people are confused.

KATHLEEN HALL JAMIESON: When a candidate is speaking in the technical language of a specific kind of business enterprise, the public is going to have difficulty understanding what he's saying.

HORSLEY: Romney's challenge is made harder because he didn't officially retire from Bain until 2001. That was after negotiating a severance package that continued to pay Romney for a decade after he'd left for Salt Lake City.

JAMIESON: When one uses a word such as retroactive retirement or when one is explaining how one continues to get an income, even though one is not actually managing day-to-day operations, one is dealing in a universe that most of us have no experience with.

HORSLEY: In contrast, President Obama's argument about Romney is straightforward. Here he is in an interview with Washington, D.C., television station WJLA.

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PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think most Americans figure if you're the chairman, CEO and president of a company, that you are responsible for what that company does.

HORSLEY: Mr. Obama has been criticizing Romney over Bain Capital's investments in companies The Washington Post said helped ship jobs overseas. That outsourcing charge coincides with questions about when Romney stepped down from Bain. But the timing may not be that important since some of the investments in outsourcing firms were clearly made while Romney was still in charge.

FRANK LUNTZ: Nobody really cares when he left. It's - that's not what's relevant, and that's not what's gaining traction.

HORSLEY: Frank Luntz is a Republican messaging guru.

LUNTZ: What is having somewhat of an impact, and I've seen it myself in the research I've done in Ohio, is a doubt, whether he connects to those who are economically challenged, who have already decided the Obama administration hasn't delivered for them over the last three and a half years, but now aren't certain whether Mitt Romney will deliver for them over the next four years.

HORSLEY: Romney cites his business experience as one of his key qualifications for the White House. Jamieson says the Obama campaign is trying to neutralize that argument by casting doubt on Bain's track record and forcing Romney to distance himself from the firm.

JAMIESON: By virtue of positioning Bain as a central element in his resume, it's becoming an indictment.

HORSLEY: And if there's any lasting impact of this timing debate, that could be it. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington.

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