By Sam Youngman - 06/14/11 09:00 AM EDT
CHICAGO — Only three Republican candidates for president are listed on the wall of President Obama’s new campaign headquarters — Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty and Jon Huntsman.
Seven Republicans debated each other in New Hampshire on Monday night, but the handmade wall sign here in Chicago might give a better glimpse of the men who most worry Obama.
An aide said the Obama campaign and DNC are keeping tabs on more candidates, but the list gives a pretty good sense of whom Obama’s team thinks its candidate might face this fall.
If Romney, Pawlenty or Huntsman emerges after a tough GOP primary fight, he would be seen as a mainstream candidate who would have no trouble lining up the Republican establishment. All three could appeal to the independent voters Obama’s advisers have courted with fervor since Republicans took over the House in November’s midterm elections, but might face a tougher time winning over conservatives.
Romney, the GOP front-runner, has widespread name recognition after running in 2008, as well as the ability to raise more money than the rest of the field. His message is all about the economy.
Pawlenty, the former governor of Minnesota, is a campaign veteran trying to establish himself as an alternative to Romney. He won raves from conservatives last week for an economic speech that would slash corporate and individual tax rates.
Huntsman, a talented politician and former Utah governor, was working for Obama until April as U.S. ambassador to China. While he hasn’t entered the race yet and was not a participant in Monday’s debate, he’s seen as a more than capable candidate by members of both parties.
Tea Party favorites like Paul, Cain and Bachmann aren’t on the list, even though all three have electrified grassroots conservatives. Paul and Bachmann have proven abilities to raise money, and even the relatively unknown Cain has polled better than Pawlenty and Huntsman.
But it is unclear whether any of this latter trio would fare well in a general election against Obama. All three might have trouble courting independents, a majority of whom backed Obama in 2008 but turned against the Democratic Party two years later.
Obama’s campaign isn’t taking any chances regardless of who emerges.
A tour of its cavernous new headquarters reveals a team that is working to capitalize on the early start Obama gets from not facing a primary foe.
Fewer than 100 people are on Obama’s campaign staff now for what is essentially the ground floor of a Fortune 500 company that will be built over the course of the coming months.
Aside from campaign manager Jim Messina and other top aides, officials are sharing offices. The best views of Millennium Park across the street are reserved for volunteers who will work a now-empty call center.
About 20 blocks away, Obama message maven David Axelrod shows up at the offices of his consulting firm wearing track pants, a Chicago Bulls warm-up sweatshirt and a White Sox hat.
Axelrod’s relaxed demeanor and casual office-wear belie a man with his work cut out for him, particularly given voter doubts about Obama’s handling of the economy. Still, he dismisses the 2010 midterm blowout of congressional Democrats as a harbinger of what’s to come.
“This isn’t last year,” said Axelrod, who cites two reasons why he’s convinced next year will be different.
The first is that unlike 2009 and 2010, Obama will not spend the two years heading into the election working to pass a $787 billion stimulus program or reforming healthcare.
“What happened last year was that for two years we had to deal with some very tough problems and we also took on some issues where we knew the things we were doing would not have short-term payouts,” Axelrod said.
Axelrod also noted that voters turn out in larger numbers during presidential years than in midterm elections, especially the first-time voters who made the difference for Obama in 2008.
“A lot of people who support the president didn’t see a great stake in voting in 2010, and I don’t think that’s going to be the case in 2012,” he said. “The electorate is going to be much larger and much more reflective of the kind of coalition that we put together in 2008.”
Obama’s predominantly young campaign staff already are putting that coalition back to work.
Despite the empty chairs and rooms and the laid-back atmosphere (there’s a cornhole game set up in the office), the campaign is engaged in an intense effort to organize volunteers this summer.
Officials fanned out around the country the first week of June, visiting 40 states to train 1,500 volunteers who will be asked to work 40 hours a week this summer organizing a larger campaign army for Obama.
More than 10,000 people applied for the 1,500 positions, campaign spokeswoman Katie Hogan said.
Volunteers will spend the next nine weeks making calls and trying to bring back the people — and their energy — who were critical to Obama in 2008.
Whether Obama faces Romney, Pawlenty, Huntsman or someone not on the current list, Obama’s team is convinced its work will give Obama a huge advantage as all of his would-be opponents focus almost entirely on the early states they need to win to secure the nomination.
“They won’t have a team in Idaho,” Hogan said, mentioning a state where Obama will be a decided underdog in 2012. “We already have a team in Idaho.”