WASHINGTON — Maybe President Barack Obama and his friends got tired of waiting for the 2012 campaign to start.
The early action was supposed to be in the competitive Republican primary. But the White House and its allies are meddling from the sidelines with a good-cop, bad-cop routine, hoping to exploit the GOP's late start.
A pro-Obama group called Priorities USA is airing a TV ad in South Carolina that jabs Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, two of the best-known Republican contenders. The ad coincided with Romney's visit to the state Saturday, his first since forming a presidential exploratory committee.
Obama keeps offering praise, which he knows can damage a candidate in a Republican primary, to Romney on health care issues and to Jon Huntsman for his service as the Obama administration's ambassador to China.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor, also is considering running.
A safer strategy might call for Obama and his allies to stay quiet, save their money and let the Republicans bash each other. But the GOP rivals aren't doing much bashing in their slow-starting contest. So Democrats are filling the void with ads and emails meant to divide the Republicans or at least annoy them.
Mischief is partly at play.
At a Boston fundraiser Wednesday, Obama credited Romney with helping to shape the Democrats' 2010 health care law, which conservatives detest and Romney has pledged to repeal. As Massachusetts governor in 2006, Romney enacted a state law that, like the federal one, requires people to obtain health insurance.
Obama has offered winking praise of Romney before. But Democrats feel Gingrich gave them a new opening on the health care front when he called a recently passed GOP House bill "radical." It would reduce Medicare's costs and benefits over time and convert Medicaid to a state block grant program.
Gingrich's efforts to apologize and retract the comments have not stopped Democrats' criticisms. The Priorities USA ad in South Carolina seeks to pit Romney against Gingrich, in terms neither will find flattering.
"Newt Gingrich says the Republican plan that would essentially end Medicare is too radical," the ad says. It suggests it's hard to know where Romney stands because he has neither criticized nor fully embraced the House measure.
Romney's camp is firing back and using the pro-Democratic ad to raise money. Romney's exploratory committee, in an email seeking donations, calls it "a misleading, negative attack ad." Romney "will not allow these tactics to slow him down," the email says.
Romney adviser Kevin Madden said the Democrats "are trying to be cute." But the South Carolina ad actually "is a sign of weakness" from a president who wants to divert attention from jobs and the economy, Madden said.
Obama and his allies have little to lose by linking Romney to the Democrats' health care law. If Republican voters accept the argument, they may nominate a less mainstream candidate who could prove weak in the general election.
If Romney is the nominee, he might have a harder time distinguishing his policies from Obama's, complicating Romney's claim that it's time to change leaders.
The Democratic National Committee maintains a barrage of "rapid response" criticisms of Romney, Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other GOP contenders.
"Tim Pawlenty: Uninspiring at Best," said one DNC statement, based on portions of a Time magazine article.
Some Democrats question the wisdom of undercutting Pawlenty, Gingrich or any other Republican besides Romney, who many see as potentially the strongest contender in a shaky GOP field.
Bill Burton, a former Obama aide who heads the Priorities USA group, said there's no point in trying to guess who the Republicans will nominate, and no point in waiting to hit the candidates' weaknesses.
Romney "is a flawed candidate," Burton said, "but he'll be well-funded."
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