Why Obama and Romney Are Fighting So Soon

Both candidates for the White House see early engagement as a chance to move poll numbers and frame the fall debate.

The "Bash Obama" mantra from Republican presidential hopefuls leaves the president's campaign team with little choice but to join the battle.

The formula is pretty simple: When winning swing states such as Iowa and New Hampshire is essential to your strategy, either you fight or you lose.

SEE ALSO: What a President Romney Might Do

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So Obama operatives are taking the punches thrown at their guy seriously. In truth, though, top aides and allies have been eager since last summer to get into a bare-knuckles brawl with the Republican candidates. And now, after just one caucus and one primary, the Democrats are focusing on the GOP front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.

Romney complains that Obama is a nice guy who doesn't know much about creating jobs, while the Obama folks argue that Romney isn't a very nice guy and gutted jobs during his tenure at private investment firm Bain Capital. In an election year when jobs and the economy are foremost on the minds of voters, expect the centerpiece argument of the campaign to be which candidate will do a better job with the financial state of the nation?

The president's people insist that their strategy of targeting Romney has panned out. They point to state-by-state numbers showing that Romney's favorability ratings have fallen after primary-season skirmishes with the Obama campaign.

But there is also evidence that Republicans have landed a few blows against Obama. Some recent polls, for example, show more potential voters saying they would choose Romney over Obama in a head-to-head contest. That’s a crucial factor during an election season in which electability is held up as a major reason to support a particular candidate.

Obama's top political advisers made the decision to focus solely on Romney early last fall, after Texas Gov. Rick Perry went into a tailspin and his campaign crashed and burned. They saw Perry as the GOP candidate with the last real hope of toppling Romney.

The candidate calculus seems to have paid off. Romney appears to have a clear path to the nomination, but he'll have to go through the motions for a while because of "in it until the end" candidates such as Texas Rep. Ron Paul. The Obama brain trust weighed whether giving Romney marquee billing so early in the race would elevate him but concluded that the hurt they are putting on Romney far exceeds any potential risk to Obama's reelection effort.

The Obama camp has come up with worst-case scenarios for attacks from Romney, going through fire drill after fire drill, confident that the president will survive whatever Romney throws at him. It's a smart strategy, since Obama faces the prospect of more than $100 million in attack ads from pro-Romney super PACS alone -- a fact that causes indigestion for Obama's seasoned political wise man, David Axelrod.

It's not a big surprise that the election will come down to which of the two candidates will better use hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising to define himself as the economic savior while painting the other guy as a poseur.

There is one wild card in the deck: Ron Paul's cultlike following. Paul is likely to have the second-largest cache of delegates heading into the Republican convention this summer. No matter how well Romney does, Paul will have a fairly strong hand. Just how he'll play it is what's keeping Republican operatives awake at night.

The question vexing Republicans is simple: Where do voters faithful to Paul go once Romney secures the nomination? Can Romney bring them into his corner? Do they stay home in November? Or -- the real doomsday scenario for the GOP -- do they stick with Paul if he launches a presidential bid as an independent?

At the moment, there is no clear-cut answer. But everyone with an elephant or a donkey in this race knows one thing for certain: A third-party run by Paul would essentially hand Obama four more years in the White House.

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Kenneth R. Bazinet
Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter