CHICAGO, Ill. — They are afraid of everything from a spike in gas prices to the possibility of war with Iran; from unemployment to the Supreme Court’s striking down the health care law. But one thing Barack Obama’s expensive war machine isn’t afraid of right now is Mitt Romney.
Sure, they respect the Boston headquarters of a professional Republican campaign and they worry about the “Death Star,” the pro-Romney Super PAC Restore Our Future. But after six months of watching Romney drift deeper into traps they spent last year setting for him, Obama’s aides and allies view him with the slavering, gloating anticipation of a tiger stalking a wildebeest.
“I think their assessment is that Romney is much less a threat to them as events are a threat to them, and I agree with that,” former Clinton aide James Carville told BuzzFeed. “Romney cannot beat Obama, only events can beat Obama.”
This point of view has real consequences for how the Obama campaign conducts itself between now and the general election. In particular, it means that most of their time and energy is spent positioning the president around pressing economic issues: The fear over gas prices is palpable in Obama campaign headquarters, where staffers say top advisors frequently huddle to discuss strategy on the issue. They spend far less time worrying about the contrast that’s supposed to be at the core of Romney’s message, his abilities as a manager and his private sector background, in contrast to a president with negligible private sector experience who Romney says is “out of his depth.”
“Every time I look at the economy I fear we can't win,” said Paul Begala, another Clinton White House aide who co-founded Priorities USA, the White House-blessed Super PAC. “Every time I look at the Republicans I think we can't lose.”
The apparent Republican weakness isn’t entirely a coincidence. The Democratic National Committee and allies like Priorities have targeted Romney with an endless stream of attack videos on issues like the auto bailout, which have been a thorn in his side in states like Michigan and Ohio.
And with a well-documented record of changing his positions for political gain, the Obama campaign and their Democratic allies are convinced they’re capable of building up his negatives in November — in part because they’ve already succeeded.
“What happened on the left to make sure he is held to account for his right wing views was important, in that it helped for voters to see who the real Mitt Romney is, despite his efforts to hide it,” said Bill Burton, a former White House deputy press secretary and co-founder of the Priorities USA Action. “The effort to highlight those positions was successful.”
That successful ‘Kill Mitt’ effort has driven up Romney’s unfavorable ratings in the polls, something Democrats are confident they can repeat in the fall to counter any bump in the polls Romney gets at the Republican National Convention.
“The things that I worry about are all the outside money,” Burton said. “Mechanics wise — the things that our out of our control —I think there are real issues for Democrats,” Burton said. “But from an issues perspective, we’re ready to go on offense.”
“There is nothing about Mitt Romney himself [that scares me],” Burton added, “it’s the resources that are at his disposal.” (Burton’s Super PAC recently received the explicit backing of the Obama campaign to raise money to counter Republican independent expenditure groups.)
Another veteran Democratic operative compared Romney to his predecessors as governor of Massachusetts, Mike Dukakis, who beat what many saw as a weak field for the nomination.
“This is their year of the seven dwarfs,” Trippi said. “He’s just the tallest dwarf.”
The broad Democratic disdain for Mitt Romney has given Obama’s campaign a different challenge: How to keep supporters on their toes.
“If the general election were held today, President Obama would lose to Mitt Romney,” Obama campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in an email to supporters last week, seeking to light a fire under the base. But the email didn’t so much as express worry about candidate-Romney, as it asked supporters to envision the possibility of a Romney presidency.
Several Obama campaign staffers described Chicago as more worried that Romney’s nomination might de-energize the base and depress donations because the grassroots think Obama will have reelection in the bag.
Carville said he’s confident in Chicago’s ability to make Romney as unpalatable as possible, but worries that Obama’s advisers still haven’t found the right message on the economy.
“I think that economically they are a little disconnected to people,” he said. ”It’s not Romney, it’s things like [the economy] that can defeat them.”
That said, the Obama campaign isn’t going to lay off Romney — because making him weaker makes their case stronger, even if the worst happens to the economy.
“You can only do the things that are in your control, so if the Romney campaign gives them a mistake – they’re going to use it and reuse it,” said Democratic consultant Joe Trippi. “I can celebrate that Romney looks weak, but they should be pointing those weaknesses out.”
Romney’s aides brush off Democratic confidence as cockiness, and one Romney adviser compared the Democratic sneering at the likely Republican nominee to way Republicans’ underestimation of Bill Clinton.
“They both are very smart,” the adviser said of Romney and Clinton, “and in would be a mistake for them to underestimate Governor Romney like we did two decades ago.”