With just six weeks to go before the Republican National Convention, Mitt Romney's campaign has bogged down over the seemingly insignificant minutia of how to precisely define the leave of absence he took from Bain Capital, while he ran the Winter Olympics from 1999 to 2002.
It was predictable that this issue would arise — it has cropped up periodically virtually from the moment Romney returned from Salt Lake City in 2002, to run for governor of Massachusetts.
What may seem surprising is the intensity with which the Obama campaign is pressing its side of the argument: that Romney is responsible for Bain's actions during those years. Equally noteworthy is the tenacity with which the Romney campaign is fighting back. Romney even submitted himself to five network-television interviews this past Friday, in a mostly unsuccessful attempt to quell the dispute.
The battle over these Bain "Shadow Years" looks especially odd, since the basic facts are not in much dispute.
When Romney left for the Olympics in February 1999, he removed himself from the day-to-day operations of the company. But he did not legally extricate himself at that time, remaining full owner of Bain Capital and most of its related entities, as well as president and CEO.
That only changed more than two years later, when he decided not to return to Bain after the Olympics.
Nobody claims that Romney was running Bain Capital's day-to-day business from Utah; nobody can dispute that he was legally the head of the company at the time, and at the very least signed occasional documents in that role.
The devil is in the details. Did Romney truly have no input during that time, as he and the company insist? Or, did he keep a hand in the business, as many suspect?
That hardly seems like a huge matter of debate in a presidential contest. It's not as if Bain Capital operated so much differently during those Shadow Years than it did while Romney was there in person. Romney has not even indicated that he would have done much of anything different had he been in charge at the time.
So why are both camps acting as though the election hangs in the balance?
The answer lies in the dual view Americans hold of corporate magnates.
For the most part, Americans respect supremely successful business leaders. We admire their skill, wisdom, hard work, and risk-taking; gobble up their memoirs and how-to books; and turn to them for analysis and insight.
But it's a different story when the curtain draws back to reveal tales of greed, manipulation, and double-dealing. Then, America's populist anger turns against those corporate titans. Think of cigarette executives who swear ignorance of their product's harm; oil and energy executives whose shortcuts befoul the land while they rake in astronomical profits; business executives, like those at Enron, who rig the system while screwing over employees and customers; and bailed-out bank executives rolling around in multi-million-dollar bonuses.
A close election could easily turn on which of these two images captures the American electorate, as they consider handing the country over to Romney.