(2 of 3)
In recent months, Obama's operatives have trained most of their fire on Romney, who until the recent rise of Gingrich appeared to be the only credible candidate with a path to victory. Democratic officials have blitzed early states, shadowing Romney at his public appearances and hosting press conferences so White House counterarguments make the local evening news. DNC strategists release daily videos selectively quoting Romney's past positions, suggesting he is too elastic to trust, and have held conference calls with the Spanish-language media calling Romney the ms extremo Republican candidate on immigration in recent history. On social media, the Obama operation has taunted Romney with Twitter hashtags like #questionsmitthates to highlight his distance from the press. Those efforts, which have largely supplanted the e-mail focus of the 2008 campaign, have sparked pointed Twitter exchanges between senior Obama and Romney aides. The strategies have also elevated several issues into headlines and debate questions, like Romney's suggestion that the housing market should be allowed to bottom out before it recovers. "Most of the aggressive attacks against Romney have emanated from the DNC, the White House and the Chicago re-elect," says Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior Romney campaign adviser. "Obama is so obsessed with the Republican primary, and Mitt Romney specifically, that we are thinking of getting a restraining order against him."
Fehrnstrom is joking about that, but it is true that the White House has been playing offense all year long. Within a month of taking over as chief of staff in January, Bill Daley lampooned Jon Huntsman as a rich legatee with a multimillion-dollar town house in one of Washington's toniest neighborhoods. Obama's opposition army amped up its game against Romney in the fall, after Texas Governor Rick Perry failed to bring the sort of heat to the race that Democrats had expected. "He hasn't exactly gotten his gun out of the holster," David Axelrod, the Obama campaign's senior strategist, said in a mid-October press call. So Obama's aides decided to roll out their general-election narrative earlier than they had planned.
Nor has their focus been limited to Romney. Early attacks were waged against Perry and former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty when they appeared to gain strength. Also on the target list is Gingrich, whom Axelrod has christened the Godfather of Gridlock, who "two decades ago really invented the kind of tactics that have become commonplace in Washington." Privately, Obama's aides, who have been digging through research files from the 1990s in recent weeks, count the former House Speaker as a genuine threat in a general election. They worry that Gingrich will be able to mount a campaign that takes credit for the bipartisan spending reductions and economic prosperity of the 1990s, while energizing Tea Party voters in a way that Romney has so far failed to do. At the same time, they see an opportunity to tie Gingrich to the politics of the past. "If winning campaigns are about the future, nominating Gingrich alone gives us a huge advantage," says one Democrat involved in the effort.