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.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another possible GOP presidential candidate, ripped Obama's foreign policies at a New Hampshire stop. He said that for now, at least, all the Republican contenders should focus on Obama, not each other. Each time a reporter invited him to criticize Romney's health care record, Gingrich replied calmly, "You'll have to ask Governor Romney about that."
Since his 2008 election, Obama has kept at least one paid political staffer in every state on the Democratic Party's payroll. Soon, those offices will expand dramatically in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and a few other early voting states. The Obama campaign will pay some workers, and state Democratic parties will pay others.
The first task, campaign advisers say, is to use phones, email and social media to contact all voters who expressed support for Obama in 2008 and get them to pledge "I'm in" for 2012. Then the campaign will recruit and train volunteers who, in turn, will fan out to neighborhoods, offices and other locations to urge the president's re-election, the advisers say.
In his low-key e-mail announcement Monday, Obama said the re-election campaign begins "with you — with people organizing block-by-block, talking to neighbors, co-workers, and friends. And that kind of campaign takes time to build."
Jackie Norris, Obama's Iowa director in 2008, said only a few details for the new campaign are in place. She said it will start with "re-engaging the activists for the campaign ahead," and will include "a significant fundraising goal."
"Everyone will be asked to give," Norris said, "in big or small amounts." She said the campaign has learned "to love the $5 donors and use that as a way to invest them in the campaign even further."
Independent groups, which are not supposed to coordinate with the official campaign, will pour resources into the early voting states, too. They have a freer hand to attack Republican candidates while Obama stays away and remains presidential.
One major new outside group will be headed by former White House aides Bill Burton and Sean Sweeney, who are courting deep-pocket donors.
Obama's backers say it will be hard to replicate the 2008 campaign's excitement and energy, when "change" and "hope" were the mottos.
But Iowa labor activist Danny Homan said anti-union legislative fights in Wisconsin, Ohio and other Midwestern states will help motivate the Democrats' base.
"I don't believe people are going to have a hard time getting energized," said Homan, adding that he's eager to work with Obama's team. "This election is going to be about whether there is going to be a middle class in this country."