Team Obama assumes Mitt Romney will be nominee — OK with that

Many Democrats seem confident President Obama will face former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in November 2012 — and they are happy enough about that.

Former White House aides, left-leaning strategists and Democratic pollsters alike seem almost of one mind on the issue.

Yes, they say, it would have been nice if one of the other Republican candidates had been able to make a stronger case against Romney. But, in their view, the missteps of the potential alternatives have been too severe, the holes in their credibility too gaping.

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“The others may not quite be toast,” Democratic strategist Chris Lehane told The Hill. “But they’re certainly in the toaster, the dial is turned up to nine, and there is smoke coming out.”

“Oh, Democrats would love to get Michele Bachmann, of course!” said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman, who is also a columnist for The Hill. “I’m sure there are lots of Democrats who would like to run against Herman Cain. But all of them, including Romney, have fundamental weaknesses.”

The pro-Obama forces have already focused their crosshairs on the former Massachusetts governor, whom they think has weaknesses they can exploit in the fall.

Even a few months ago, key Obama aides like David Axelrod were either arguing that all the Republican candidates were essentially the same or making attacks on then-ascendant Texas Gov. Rick Perry that were just as strong as their dings against Romney. Axelrod told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos in August that Perry had a “record of decimation” at the helm of the Lone Star State.

Of late, the attacks on the un-Romneys have a casual, pro-forma quality, whereas the push against the former Massachusetts governor is ever more sharply defined. Democrats believe his record of shifting positions on social issues, and his business history, provide some inviting targets.

“Mitt Romney is someone who has been driven by his desire for political success for the last decade,” former White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton told The Hill.

Burton, now the senior strategist at Priorities USA, a nominally independent group dedicated to electing Democrats in 2012, added, “He has been largely unsuccessful in his push for office because he has demonstrated no core values.”

Another former White House press aide, Corey Ealons, now a senior vice president at Vox Global, said: “Everything Romney does is viewed through the lens of putting himself in the best position to win public office. That is the case that the White House and the members of the campaign reelection team are working hard to establish right now.”

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel put it more colorfully during a speech in Iowa on Saturday.

"Mitt Romney says he's a man of steadiness and consistency. If that's true, then I'm a linebacker for the Chicago Bears," Emanuel said.

Statistics tell the story.

Romney has been the target of 12 news releases from the Democratic National Committee since the start of October against two for businessman Herman Cain and one for Perry. During the same period, the group’s blog has featured 36 posts tagged with Romney’s name against six for Cain and four for Perry.

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Burton’s group has spent over $300,000 so far against Romney, records show — and nothing, it appears, against any other Republican presidential contender.

That being so, it is no surprise that Burton sounded dismissive of the alternatives. Newt Gingrich’s success, he argued, was “largely due to his performance in debates being better than a bunch of people who aren’t very good at debating.” Herman Cain “has gotten a lot more attention than he probably deserves.”

In fact, the only other candidate who attracted a strong response from Burton — if a somewhat wistful one — was Perry.

Asked if he expected Perry to have performed better, Burton responded: “Yes! He has definitely been worse [than expected]. He has this reputation as a drag-out, hard-knuckle brawler. And he hasn’t shown any of that.”

If Perry cannot damage Romney, Team Obama is evidently doing its best to draw some early blood.

“It’s smart to do that,” said Mellman. “What you don’t want is someone emerging from the nominating process with a golden, untouched resume.”

The danger of such a prospect is especially heightened when the president is facing into such strong economic headwinds.

Lehane said he expected the argument about Romney’s U-turns to segue into an unflattering portrayal of his business record in general, and what will be presented as a love of downsizing American companies in particular.

“Romney has the potential to have a glass jaw,” the strategist said. “It is that he made his fortune by downsizing and outsourcing.”

Despite much speculation about conservatives’ dissatisfaction with Romney, few Democrats seem to think that this will really be a factor if he is the general-election nominee.

“There is no doubt that Republicans will coalesce behind their nominee, because Republicans are very focused on defeating the president,” said Burton.

Those who might have preferred some other opponent are drawing solace from the fact that the practice of drawing up a wish list has a history of backfiring.

“When you try to pick your opponent, you almost always make a mistake,” said Mellman. “In Senate and House races I’ve thought, 'Boy, I hope we get that guy.' And he ends up being the one who beats you.”

“In 1980, Democrats were really hoping to run against Ronald Reagan,” Bill Burton noted. “We all know how that worked out.”

Additional reporting by Mario Trujillo.