M. Spencer Green, File, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — Even without a Democratic challenger, President Barack Obama is planning an aggressive role in early primary states. His operatives are already moving in, organizing volunteers and raising money to answer Republican attacks and do what they can to weaken the GOP's strongest challengers.
With the election 19 months away, Obama's campaign could keep a low profile while Republicans pummel each other. But he won't be content to watch passively as his potential rivals duke it out.
Three of the earliest-voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — will also be strongly contested in the fall of 2012. Likely Republican candidates already are assailing Obama there, and his aides say they can't wait months to respond.
"Issues are going to be joined there, statements are going to be made, points are going to be raised," top Obama adviser David Axelrod said in an interview. "It behooves us to make sure that facts are well represented."
"One can't be passive here," Axelrod said.
Democratic insiders say there's another reason for Obama's team to engage in early primary states, including South Carolina, which the president has little chance of winning in the general election: By strategically stirring the pot, his backers may manage to undermine those Republicans seen as most likely to give him a tough fight next year.
Democrats note that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada drew a relatively weak Republican challenger last year, Sharron Angle, after his organization ran a virtual campaign against Sue Lowden, who was considered the stronger GOP contender. Angle beat Lowden in the Republican primary, then lost narrowly to Reid.
The president may have to be more subtle than that, but independent groups not connected to his campaign won't have to.
Democratic officials say the Obama campaign efforts are extraordinary, especially so early and for a president with no party challenger. The strategy reflects Democrats' belief that Obama can again raise huge sums of money, giving his operatives the luxury of starting now and competing, somewhat mischievously perhaps, in states where the spotlight ordinarily would fall on Republicans alone.
Indeed, Obama and his aides already have taken potshots at potentially strong challengers, extolling them in ways likely to displease partisan Republicans. The president, with a twinkle in his eye, likes to tell voters that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman served the administration admirably as U.S. ambassador to China.
And White House aides frequently cite former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as an inspiration for Obama's historic health care overhaul, which many Republican activists detest. That's hardly welcome praise for Romney, who already must often defend his Massachusetts plan. It ranks among the highest hurdles he will face for the GOP nomination.
Democratic National Committee officials acknowledge that they recently urged Massachusetts to push its Democratic and Republican primaries, now scheduled for March 6, to a later date. Republicans say Democrats want to hurt Romney by letting less friendly, more conservative states influence the primary season's early stages. Massachusetts officials have shown little interest in the DNC request.
Meanwhile, potential Republican presidential contenders have proved Axelrod's point about attacks by repeatedly criticizing Obama in Iowa, where the GOP caucus is tentatively set for Jan. 16, and in New Hampshire, whose primary comes eight days later.
"The ultimate arrogance, in my opinion, is Obama-care," Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., recently told a Des Moines crowd.
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