By Amie Parnes - 04/18/12 09:00 AM EDT
In a bid to win independents, President Obama’s campaign is ramping up efforts to label Mitt Romney a hardcore conservative.
Out is the emphasis on Romney as a centrist flip-flopper with “no core,” a tag useful for Democrats as they attempted to hurt Romney with Republican voters and lengthen the primary season.
“The most important thing is to define Mitt Romney early before he has a chance to define himself,” said Steve Elmendorf, a Washington lobbyist who served as deputy campaign manager during the John Kerry presidential campaign. “The goal is to make him unacceptable to independent voters.
“It’s a time-honored tactic,” Elmendorf added. “You do it when he’s less prepared, tired and cranky and trying to map out the general election.”
Chris Lehane, a Democratic consultant who served as an aide to several Democrats in their presidential bids, added that the Obama campaign is putting Romney in a corner by painting a caricature of a conservative who holds vastly different views on the economy.
“It puts him in a handcuffs position where you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t,” Lehane said.
“This is going to be a race for definition,” Lehane explained. “Whoever wins the early part of the race will be in a better position in the fall.”
Team Obama appears to be seizing the moment.
On Monday, during a briefing with reporters at the White House, a senior administration official said voters are seeing the real Mitt Romney.
The official described Romney as a conservative who wants to get rid of abortion and gay marriage and opposes the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal residency for children brought to the country as illegal immigrants. The official, mindful of Obama’s hope to win a large percentage of Hispanic voters, said Romney wants to deport all of the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
The senior aide said that these views represent Romney at his core. And while the GOP candidate might have taken a more centrist stance in 1994, in order to get elected in Massachusetts, he is now an ultra-conservative whose views couldn’t be more different from Obama’s positions.
Obama aides have been ready to pounce on statements that point up Romney’s conservative positions.
In recent weeks, for example, they’ve linked Romney to the House Republican budget.
And after Romney made headlines this week, telling big dollar-donors that he would consider eliminating agencies like the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Obama campaign was quick to weigh in.
“In order to fund his $5 trillion tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, [Romney] would make deep cuts in programs essential to the middle class, like education and housing,” campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said in a statement to reporters.
But Republicans say the new tack shows a weakness in the Obama campaign and a tactical misstep.
“They’re making a mistake,” said Tucker Eskew, a former aide to George W. Bush who also served on the former president’s campaign team. “They thought they had a great idea before, and now they think they have another, but the two are in conflict with one another.
“Independents aren’t paying much attention right now, but they can smell desperation,” Eskew said. “The Obama campaign does many things well, but in choosing to grab this bucket of mud, they’ve dirtied their own hands.”
Republican strategist John Feehery said the strategy shows the Obama campaign is “panicked.”
“They’re ramping up this message because they’re looking at poll numbers, and they’re concerned, and they should be concerned,” said Feehery, also a columnist for The Hill. “But the problem is that it has no credibility, and the reason is Mitt Romney has been condemned by conservatives for not being conservative enough.”
The Romney campaign swiped at the Obama campaign for searching for a campaign theme.
“This is a White House in search of a reason for reelection,” said Andrea Saul, a spokeswoman for the Romney campaign. “While they try and navigate around a failed record with any attack and distraction they can think of, Gov. Romney is going to continue talking about his plans to jumpstart the economy and get Americans back to work.”
An Obama campaign aide said on Tuesday that the president’s team has been highlighting Romney’s extreme conservative positions for a year and that it wasn’t a shift in strategy.
But as recently as last fall, the Obama campaign seemed focused on crafting an image of Romney as a flip-flopper who changes his positions as he sees fit. In October, Obama strategist David Axelrod told CBS’s “The Early Show,” “I think there is a sense that there’s no core to him.”
Now Obama aides and those close to the campaign say the Romney of the GOP primaries is the real Romney.
“No one forced Mitt Romney to wrap his arms around the Tea Party and take the most extreme position on immigration of any candidate in modern history, but that is the platform he has decided to embrace throughout the campaign,” said Jen Psaki, a former Obama aide.
“He has presented himself as someone with the priorities of the conservative right,” Psaki said. “That’s who the president is running against.”