President Obama’s top campaign strategists said Tuesday that the increasingly heated Republican primary battle between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich is helping to shift the national political landscape back to Obama’s advantage.
Their comments reflected growing confidence among Democrats, who only months ago worried that the sputtering economy and a lack of enthusiasm among core voters would doom Obama’s reelection bid. Even some Republicans are starting to express concern that the GOP’s nominating process could leave Obama in a stronger spot than his weak polling numbers might suggest.
That view has come about in recent weeks with the rise of Gingrich, viewed by Obama strategists as a weaker general-election foe, and the struggles of Romney, whose ability to garner support from independent voters could be challenged as he is forced to shift rightward to win the nomination.
“I think a couple of months ago, we saw it as a much more difficult race,” said Gerald W. McEntee, president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which endorsed Obama last week and has already spent $25 million toward his reelection. “A lot of people didn’t realize yet what the Republican lineup was going to look like, and what they were going to talk about and stand up for. Recently, with the debates the Republicans have had among themselves, people understand more.”
Republican strategist Mike Murphy said the changing political dynamic has given Obama’s team reason for new optimism. He described a Gingrich nomination as a “train wreck” for Republicans.
“At a minimum and maybe most meaningfully now is the psychological boost to the Obama guys,” Murphy said. “After being pounded for so long and being in the precarious situation they’ve been in, at least they can close their eyes now and see a credible chance of a Gingrich nomination, which would make life so much easier for them.”
Obama aides concede that the new political terrain is anything but ideal, but they sought to project an air of confidence on Tuesday with a presentation to reporters at the Democratic National Committee headquarters, arguing that the prospect of a long and bloody primary fight between Romney and Gingrich is helping the president.
The aides argued that Romney’s hard-line stances on immigration and his missteps — such as his attempted $10,000 bet during a candidates debate Saturday — are turning off general-election voters, while the extra time is giving Obama’s campaign unfettered space to build its grass-roots machinery in swing states.
“The longer this [Republican] race goes, the more you’re going to see these Republican candidates mortgage their general-election campaign to try and win the nomination,” said David Axelrod, the Obama campaign’s senior strategist.
Until recently, analysts and Obama supporters alike were wondering whether the president could overcome the dismal economic landscape to win reelection.
Obama’s overall standing in national public polls has improved slightly since hitting new lows earlier this fall, but on the economy — the major focus of the campaign — he remains at or near record lows. A CBS News poll released Friday shows just 28 percent of Americans saying Obama has made things better.
And some Republicans say the Democrats’ optimism is a fantasy.
Obama’s low approval ratings on the economy will prove too much to overcome, many GOP strategists say, no matter how the primaries play out in the coming weeks and months.
“They are taking a short-term view because the bigger, longer frame is so bad,” said Karl Rove, a former adviser to George W. Bush.
The Obama team “should not feel the least bit comfortable,” said Republican pollster Linda DiVall, who has worked for both Romney and Gingrich but is uncommitted this year. She said that with Obama’s low approval ratings, voters’ negative feelings about the direction of the country and the way unemployment is calculated — to exclude people who have stopped looking for work — there is little good news for the president.
“None of the metrics for Obama seem to be changing dramatically whatsoever,” DiVall said.
A new USA Today-Gallup poll of 12 swing states published Tuesday found the Republican Party in a better position than in 2008, when Obama combined strong base turnout and success in attracting centrist independent voters to prevail in those contests. More than six in 10 Republicans say they are enthusiastic about voting for president next year, compared with fewer than half of Democrats, the poll found. Moreover, the survey found Obama polling slightly behind Gingrich and Romney in the 12 states.
Andrea Saul, a Romney spokeswoman, said the White House is “scared at the prospect of facing Mitt Romney in the general election, because they don’t want to go toe to toe on the economy with a conservative businessman who spent his life in the private sector.” If Gingrich were the nominee, she added, the election next year would feature “two Washington insiders with no experience in the real world of job creation.”
A Gingrich spokesman did not respond Tuesday.
Still, Democrats feel a lot better than they did just weeks ago. As one veteran Democratic operative put it, “There are reasons not to feel suicidal.”
In their briefing on Tuesday, Obama aides lauded themselves for building what they said is a far superior ground organization than any GOP campaign is building. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said the president’s staff in Iowa is bigger than that of any of the leading GOP candidates, even though they are waging a competitive caucus contest there.
Where the lengthy and heated Democratic primary battle four years ago between Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton excited core voters and turned Obama into a more mature candidate, the GOP bout is instead harming that party this time around, Axelrod said.
“The difference here is we weren’t being tugged to the left in our party,” he said. “They’re being tugged to the right every day.”
Polling analyst Scott Clement contributed to this report.