Chief correspondent

President Obama’s Chicago-based campaign team has been waiting months to launch a real attack against Mitt Romney’s experience at Bain Capital. Even before Romney’s Republican presidential rivals started going after him, Obama’s campaign was preparing for the moment that arrived this week.

There is no mystery to the strategy underway: define Romney before he can fully pivot to general-election voters after a nomination battle that went on longer than expected and that kept the presumptive GOP nominee pinned to the right of the political spectrum as he fought off more conservative challengers.

Obama advisers in Chicago and the West Wing believe that attacks on Romney’s record in both private business and state government could disqualify the former Massachusetts governor in the eyes of voters. Although the initial Obama campaign ad will run in just a few markets in a few states, an Obama-backed super PAC will amplify the message with its own advertisement on the same theme. No doubt there is much more coming from both.

In Boston, Romney advisers believe they see a bit of panic in their rival’s moves. They believe the softness of the economy, the slow pace of job creation, and the pain still felt by the unemployed and the underemployed imperil Obama’s chances for reelection — a view shared by analysts not attached to Romney’s campaign. They further believe that the political cognoscenti undervalue Romney as a candidate and therefore his chances of winning.

The engagement has brought the campaign quickly back to the core issue before the voters: the state of an economy that, although no longer in recession, is still not healthy. Same-sex marriage dominated the political world last week, but the attack-counterattack on the economy this week will begin to set the real terms of the debate for November.

When Romney’s Republican opponents went after Bain and the role of private equity in buying and selling businesses and, in the process, sometimes laying off workers and downsizing operations, there was an outcry from within the party: Don’t attack the free-enterprise system. Romney complained that his rivals, principally former House speaker Newt Gingrich, were trying to penalize success. He said he would not apologize for having been good at what he did.

The reaction from the party was enough to force Gingrich and his super PAC to back off and look for other avenues of attack against Romney. The Obama campaign will be immune to such rejoinders and won’t face the kind of internal pressure from the left to tone down its criticism. Obama’s progressive base has been eager to portray Romney as someone whose values skew to the rich at the expense of the middle class.

Obama’s campaign has had many months to test various arguments with voters in focus groups to see which resonate. The fruits of that work are now being seen. Some of the president’s advisers believe that, although Romney might be less gaffe-prone as a general-election candidate than he was in the primaries, he still can be portrayed as a politician disconnected from the problems of average Americans in ways that could cripple his candidacy.

“What gives me confidence [about the election] is the notion that he’s just out of touch, [that] he just doesn’t get it, will be a constant problem for him. . . . His whole focus was on maximizing profit as opposed to the middle class,” said one Obama adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid about how the president’s campaign sees the debate unfolding.

For months, Obama has argued that Republicans and Romney want to take the country back to the policies that led to the economic collapse in 2008. There will be more debates about whether either candidate has a real plan for the future, as well as about Romney’s job-creation record vs. Obama’s.

That is not what this is about. Obama’s campaign has taken a page from the 2004 reelection campaign of President George W. Bush. Shortly after Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.), the Democratic nominee, wrapped up his nomination, the Bush team went on television with positive ads about the president. But quickly thereafter, the campaign turned its fire on Kerry and never let up.

This week’s opening volley is less an assault on private equity than it is an attack on the character of the former governor. It goes directly to the issue of whose side Romney is on, where the Obama campaign sees the GOP candidate as most vulnerable.

Romney has countered immediately, as he must. His advisers have argued that the election will not be won on style points or on the issue of which candidate is the more likeable. But they know he must be perceived as better equipped to accelerate the pace of recovery and boost the fortunes of the middle class. That might be all the more urgent if a new USA Today-Gallup poll showing rising optimism about the future economy continues to reflect public opinion.

In response to Obama, Romney’s campaign produced a spot touting Bain’s success in turning around companies and creating jobs. On Tuesday morning, the team issued a new video portraying the hardship and struggle of Iowans whose lives have been ravaged by the economy — timed no doubt to Romney’s appearance in Des Moines, but with a message that they think will resonate elsewhere: Hope and change have not been kind to the nation.

These responses do not directly answer the question of whose side the former governor is on — or would be if he were president. Instead they point voters back to the state of the country after three years of the Obama presidency. That makes this something of an asymmetrical debate — but one of vital importance in determining the outcome of the election.

Both sides know that most Americans have a relatively fixed impression of the president, but that far fewer know much about Romney. This might seem like the early stages of the general election, but the two sides also know that what voters conclude about Romney in the next few months is likely to stick. That is what is behind the intensity of the engagement this week.