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Associated Press
While followed by the media, Republican presidential candidate, former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney leads his wife Ann across Main Street while campaigning in Concord, N.H. Friday, Dec. 23, 2011. (AP Photo/Winslow Townson)

TILTON, N.H. — It's an opening salvo of the presidential campaign, minus actual presidential nominees.

Vice President Joe Biden unleashed a biting critique of Mitt Romney's policies Friday and the Republican came swiftly back at him — a full-contact preview of what the general election might look like should Romney win the GOP nomination to challenge President Barack Obama.

All this, before a vote is cast in the Republican race, The Iowa caucuses, looming Jan. 3, are the first step in the voting to pick a Republican nominee.

In an opinion piece published in The Des Moines Register, Biden portrayed the Republican frontrunner as the purveyor of failed, retreaded economic ideas. Romney shot back that Biden and Obama live an economic "fantasyland" out of touch with the real world.

Biden's jabs mark a major escalation in Obama's re-election campaign and refocus his political team on Romney, the former Massachusetts governor whom Obama advisers have long considered his most likely opponent. And it switches Obama away from his just-concluded tax cut victory over House Republicans to the GOP presidential field just 12 days before the Iowa caucuses.

"Romney appears satisfied to settle for an economy in which fewer people succeed, while the majority of Americans are left to tread water or fall behind," Biden wrote.

The Obama team may be betting on Romney, but his Republican rivals were conceding no such ground.

Biden's words, meanwhile, summed up a running story line about Romney that Obama's campaign and the Democratic Party have been refining for months. The piece also was a direct rebuttal to Romney's recent claim he wants "an opportunity society" versus what he called Obama's "entitlement society."

Biden reiterated a major theme of Obama's re-election effort, one the president spelled out in a recent speech in Kansas where he declared that the middle class was at a make-or-break moment. In taking on Romney, Biden defined "opportunity" in his own terms.

"We believe deeply in opportunity — that if you work hard and play by the rules, no opportunity should be out of reach," he wrote. "This is a fundamentally different vision than what the other side has proposed."

Romney, speaking at the Tilt'n Diner, quickly countered that it was Obama who is hurting the country and expressed astonishment that Biden would have the "chutzpah ... the delusion" to write such a piece.

"This president and his policies have made it harder on the American people and on the middle class," he said. "And I don't think they get it. I don't think they understand from fantasyland what's happening in real America. They need to get out to diners like this."

The timing, placement and direct response to Romney represented a remarkable early volley from the Obama camp, using the most potent voice next to the president himself to set a new signpost on the re-election season. And it signaled an aggressive strategy to challenge his GOP opposition and engage even though the Republican nomination could remain unsettled for months.

In the opinion piece, Biden said Romney's proposals for the economy "would actually double down on the policies that caused the greatest economic calamity since the Great Depression and accelerated a decades-long assault on the middle class."

"Romney also misleadingly suggests that the president and I are creating an 'Entitlement Society,' whereby government provides everything for its people without regard to merit, as opposed to what he calls an Opportunity Society,' where everything is merit-based and every man is left to fend for himself," Biden wrote.

In essentially placing its bets on Romney, the Obama camp elevated his stature in the race, particularly in Iowa where he is running neck-and-neck with Gingrich and Texas congressman Ron Paul.

Romney was clearly ready — and eager — to engage with the White House. While he generally has to be asked, or even pressed, to criticize Gingrich, he hit back at Biden at the first opportunity.

"I think they realize what's coming," he said. "I hope they're right. I hope I'm the nominee."

Romney aides said campaign days like this help him against his GOP rivals, positioning him as the candidate best able to take on Obama in the fall and addressing a top Republican goal: selecting a nominee who is electable against the president.

The Obama campaign also chose Iowa to deliver the Biden message because it is an epicenter of national politics and where it was sure to get intense attention.