WASHINGTON (Reuters) - So much for that focused anti-Mitt strategy.
President Barack Obama’s campaign signaled on Tuesday it would attack the new Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich just as hard as Mitt Romney, the longtime leader in the race, and forecast - to its delight - a long battle between the two men for their party’s nomination.
Obama’s campaign advisers have spent months criticizing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in an effort to wound him ahead of November’s general election, when they expected him to face off against Obama, a Democrat.
But with Gingrich’s surge in polls, the Obama campaign has recalibrated, directing attacks at both men.
“Newt is back,” said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist, during a briefing with reporters in Washington. “The question is can he sustain this over time.”
Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, ended his 20-year congressional career after Republican losses in the 1998 elections.
Axelrod called Gingrich the original “Tea Partier” who had led three government shut-downs, worked to roll back environmental protections and cut the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
His rise has prompted the Obama team to forecast a Republican primary battle that will last well into next year, perhaps as long as June -- which would, the campaign believes, reveal weaknesses in both candidates that will help Obama.
Gingrich would get more scrutiny if his lead persists, said Axelrod, who poked the former lawmaker for having high expenditures at the jewelry store Tiffany’s and for portraying a “gauzy” relationship with Bill Clinton even though he presided over the former Democratic president’s impeachment.
“Just remember the higher a monkey climbs on the pole, the more you can see his butt,” Axelrod said folksily about Gingrich, quoting some “homespun wisdom” he said he heard from a Chicago politician years ago.
“The Speaker’s very high on the pole right now, and we’ll see how people like the view.”
The Obama campaign’s attacks lend further legitimacy to Gingrich, who is ahead of Romney in Iowa and South Carolina, and is gaining ground in New Hampshire, where Romney has led for months.
Those three early voting states will help determine the outcome of the nominating contest, which Obama advisers said could still be a close race five or six months from now.
“You could see this thing going way deep, unless someone runs out of momentum or money,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina. Axelrod said both men could “mortgage” a general election campaign by appealing too much to their base now.
Aside from a dual-attack approach, Obama advisers laid out other bits of strategy guiding their approach to 2012.
President Bill Clinton would campaign for Obama, they said.
Themes from Obama’s recent speech in Kansas advocating economic policies that give a fair shake to the middle class would continue to get top billing, regardless of whether Romney or Gingrich end up as the president’s opponent.
“The debate is going to be largely the same because the economic theory on ... their side is largely the same,” Axelrod said.
Messina outlined five pathways to earning the 270 state electoral votes needed to win re-election.
Those included scenarios in which Obama won one or all of these states: Florida; southern states North Carolina and Virginia; midwestern states Ohio and Iowa; western states Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada as well as Iowa; or the “expansion” state of Arizona.
Messina said the campaign’s grassroots organizing dwarfed the Republicans’ efforts, even in Iowa, where the Republican candidates have focused a lot of time and resources ahead of the country’s first nominating contest there.
“I think we have more staffers on the ground in Iowa than any of the other campaigns,” Messina said. “We have infrastructure on the ground in all of the key states. I don’t think any of them do. And in the general election this is, of course, going to be an advantage for us when we have to turn folks out (to vote.)”
Editing by Jackie Frank