Cory Booker must feel like the halfback who finally gets to play in the big game — and fumbles the football. But he will get other chances.

The Newark mayor's inarticulate handling of a Meet the Press question Sunday about Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's prior career with the Bain Capital private equity firm was painful to watch, but not fatal.

Since he was President Obama's surrogate, it was surprising that Booker seemed to defend Romney, saying he disagreed with Obama ads that appear to equate private equity firms with evil incarnate.

"If you look at the totality of Bain Capital's record, they've done a lot to support businesses, to grow businesses," said Booker. What he didn't say is that his own political star has been hooked to Bain Capital. He has received thousands of dollars from the company and its executives for his mayoral campaigns.

Nothing wrong with that. It should be expected that the popular mayor of a city so close to the financial capital of the world would get some love from business interests. What's surprising is that the Obama folks apparently didn't connect the dots and caution Booker to watch what he said about his past benefactor before his TV appearance.

Instead, the campaign came across as having to take Booker to the woodshed afterward to remind him of his allegiances. Thus the contrite statements by the mayor later, clarifying that he found all attack ads "nauseating" — whether about Bain or anything else — and agreeing that Romney's business background is relevant to voters.

Of course it is. Romney can't have it both ways. His whole campaign has been based on the idea that Washington needs a businessman in charge to create the jobs that will finally put the recession so far behind us that people will forget there was one.

It's an interesting premise, given that bad business practices encouraged by lax government regulation caused the recession in the first place. Knowing that, why is Romney even going that route in his campaign, rather than touting his government experience?

Is he afraid any reference to his having been governor of Massachusetts will be a reminder that the affordable-health-care plan he created for that state was the model for what he now derides as "Obamacare"? Is it that the Republican Party has become so enamored of the notion that government is the enemy that he doesn't want to admit he ran a government?

If it's his business background that Romney prefers to run on, then questions about his days running Bain Capital are appropriate. His record shouldn't be distorted in attack ads, but voters deserve to know what he did to create jobs — since he's running as an expert at that — and what he did to cut jobs, because that, too, is integral to how private equity firms make money.

Booker probably won't stay in the Democrats' doghouse for long. He has so much charisma that even Gov. Christie, a possible GOP vice-presidential candidate, likes to be seen with him. And Booker is absolutely right about the insidious effect of all negative advertising, which is being fueled by the beaucoup campaign cash available since the Supreme Court weakened corporate contribution rules.

Unfortunately, voters can't expect it to get any better. Not while candidates are trying so hard to describe the other guy that they don't let voters see who they really are.