By Mike Lillis - 01/04/12 07:22 PM EST
President Obama's reelection team is painting Mitt Romney's narrow win in Iowa as a loss, citing his eight-vote margin of victory over Rick Santorum.
They argue the lack of a decisive winner in Tuesday's caucus means Obama is the real victor.
"We've been hearing all year about the great enthusiasm in the Republican Party," David Axelrod, senior campaign strategist, told reporters on a press call. "The fact that there were 10,000 fewer self-identified Republicans participating in the caucuses yesterday is really something that belies that assertion and raises real questions about the enthusiasm that the Republicans have for their own candidates."
Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, echoed that message, saying Romney ran away with only one category of voter: those "who harbored doubts about their candidate."
Axelrod noted that even a late spending push by Romney didn't raise his approval numbers above those he earned in Iowa last cycle.
"Had he won a resounding victory in Iowa yesterday and improved on what he'd done four years ago ... I think he could have argued persuasively that he was bringing that party together and that he was in a position to close this out," he said. "I don't think that happened last night ... and therefore I think it's very possible that this race could go on for awhile."
Romney took about 25 percent of the vote in Iowa — nearly the same amount he got in 2008 when he came in second — and edged out Santorum by just eight votes out of more than 120,000 cast.
Exit polling showed that most of Romney's support came from voters whose main concern was defeating Obama in November.
The Obama's campaign team is clearly focusing its sights on Romney as Obama's likely opponent in November. Indeed, both Axelrod and Messina repeatedly attacked Romney for changing positions on issues in an effort to win conservative primary votes. The two barely mentioned the other GOP candidates.
"Taking two positions on every issue — one more on the left and one on the far right — doesn't make you a centrist," Axelrod said. "It makes you a charlatan. It makes you unreliable."
Axelrod doubled down on that line of attack, saying the only consistent thread in Romney's career has been his "personal ambition."
Romney has long been in the Obama campaign's sights. He was the first GOP candidate they attacked this cycle and, the week before the Iowa caucuses, Vice President Biden wrote an op-ed in Iowa's The Des Moines Register attacking the former Massachusetts governor's economic plan.
Romney, the former head of Bain Capital, has made his business experience a major selling point of his campaign and repeatedly hammered Obama on the state of the economy, which voters list as their top concern.
The former Massachusetts governor is considered the front-runner for the GOP nomination and polls in New Hampshire, the next state to vote, show him with a strong lead there.
Noting the effectiveness of an advertising push in Iowa by a super-PAC supporting Romney — particularly as it eroded former Speaker Newt Gingrich's approval numbers — Axelrod said he's "concerned" with the Republicans' ad machine, particularly in the wake of a 2010 Supreme Court case that opened the door to unlimited corporate spending on campaigns.
Restore Our Future, a super-PAC founded by three former Romney aides, spent about $2.8 million on ads in Iowa, according to reports.
"I don't want to sugarcoat it, it's obviously a factor," Axelrod said of the spending. "There's no doubt the president has taken on some powerful interests on behalf of people during this administration, so there are folks with motive, and now they have opportunity. So it is a concern."
Obama's advisers are also hopeful that incumbency will act as something of a shield against the many attack ads that are sure to come, though the president reportedly has a goal of raising $1 billion to counteract GOP spending.
"The president is fully known to the American people," Axelrod said. "There's not a whole lot that they haven't heard, so I think he will be less susceptible."
In Iowa, both Romney and Santorum received just under 25 percent of the vote. Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) finished a close third, with more than 21 percent, while Gingrich landed in a more distant fourth, at 13.3 percent.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who came in fifth, suspended his campaign operations Tuesday evening but hinted Wednesday his campaign would go on. Rep. Michele Bachmann (Minn.), who finished last, ended her presidential bid. A seventh Republican vying for the White House, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, had skipped the Iowa race to focus his efforts elsewhere, including New Hampshire.
Huntsman on Wednesday characterized the Iowa results as "ambiguous," adding that Romney's lean win should be a disappointment considering the time and money the former Massachusetts governor spent on Tuesday's caucuses. Huntsman said the contest remains wide open.
"You’ve got three people basically sharing a tie and a whole lot of people looking for an alternative," he said Wednesday on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."
This piece was updated at 4:11 p.m. to reflect Axelrod quotes initially attributed to Messina.