Mitt Romney called Barack Obama a liar on CNN this morning in response to the Obama campaign ad “Pocket”. When asked about the claims that John McCain was in the pocket of Big Oil, Romney scoffed at Obama’s demonization of both the industry and of McCain, and pointed out that Obama takes money from the exact same source he decries in the ad:

Gov. Mitt Romney: “Well, that’s really sad. I didn’t know that Barack Obama had stooped to dishonesty. You know, pointing out weaknesses in other people’s campaigns or positions is also fair game, but that’s dishonest, as you know. First of all, corporations are not allowed to give contributions to candidates, and employees of oil companies give to Barack Obama as well as to John McCain. So, that’s part number one that’s dishonest. And, number two, John McCain doesn’t ask for any tax reduction for oil companies. There’s no special deal going to oil companies. He’s asking to reduce taxes on all corporations to help build our economy and strengthen jobs as well as reducing taxes on individuals. So, it’s simply dishonest as well as below the belt.”

CNN’s Kiran Chetry: “Just to clarify. According to The Washington Post, oil and gas industry executives and employees donated $1.1 million to John McCain’s campaign last month. So, I think that is what he’s referring to in that ad.”

Gov. Romney: “But what you don’t point out is the employees and executives of the oil companies also gave money to Barack Obama and to suggest that they only gave to John McCain is dishonest. There’s no indication that that’s the case. In fact, individuals can give to candidates of both parties and they regularly do.”

Chetry: “Right. Well, let me just ask you about this, because if John McCain became president, he wants to lower the corporate tax rate by 10%, so 35% down to 25% and that would include companies like big oil and Exxon Mobil who took in $12 billion last quarter alone. How do you explain that to the everyday Joe who’s seeing a larger chunk of their paycheck taken up by high gases prices and these oil companies are going to see more money in their pockets while the average guy is seeing less?”

Gov. Romney: “Well, first of all, he’s lowering taxes for all corporations in America to help make us more competitive with other nations of the world where corporations are going, because we have the highest corporate tax rate in the world next to Japan. So, he’s trying to build our economy and create more jobs and he’s not singling out any one company or another.”

What Chetry also misses in this exchange, and which Romney didn’t mention either, is the extraordinary amount of tax companies like ExxonMobil already pays. They paid three times as much in taxes as they made in profit in 2007. Government makes a lot more money on the backs of these “average Joes” than shareholders in these companies, many of whom are the same average Joes, thanks to the vast expansion of the investor class over the last 25 years.

Romney appears ready to get tough on the campaign trail, a quality that McCain will need in his running mate.  Eric Cantor and Sarah Palin have the same quality as well.  Normally the running mates on both tickets handle the negative campaigning rather than the presidential aspirants, but this summer has thus far forced both campaigns to begin their general election efforts earlier than usual.

Even if Romney doesn’t end up on the ticket, he’s showing that he can play hardball for the Republicans.  The McCain campaign needs to get him out in front of the media more, giving McCain more room to expand on his own agenda. In the meantime, the more Obama attacks him as a man who supports drilling, the better off McCain will be, allowing the 70% of Americans who support domestic drilling to identify the candidate who agrees with their position — and the one who rejects it.