Long expecting to face Mitt Romney in the fall, President Barack Obama's campaign team has shifted gears in recent days to consider the possibility his GOP opponent will instead be Rick Santorum.
Campaign officials confirm Obama's Chicago-based organization has begun combing through the former Pennsylvania senator's background looking for possible lines of attack. It also emailed Obama's Pennsylvania supporters this past week asking for material that could be used against Santorum in upcoming speeches and ads.
The move reflects Santorum's sudden surge in nationwide opinion polls and a spate of recent primary-season victories over Romney.
"Circumstances have changed," explained Obama's deputy campaign manager, Stephanie Cutter.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, still leads the delegate race with 123, compared with 72 pledged to Santorum and 32 to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, according to the most recent AP tally.
But after capturing Republican caucuses in Minnesota and Colorado and a non-binding primary in Missouri on Feb. 7, Santorum has enjoyed a burst of attention — and fundraising.
Moreover, in high-stakes Michigan, where primary voters cast ballots a week from Tuesday, several polls in the past week gave him a lead, even though it's Romney's native state. The margin has ranged from four points in a Detroit News poll to nine in a Mitchell/Rosetta Stone survey.
"I mean, who'd have guessed?" Obama's Pennsylvania campaign director, Bill Hyers, asked in an email to supporters. He said it's up to Pennsylvania to make sure the rest of the country 'sees Rick Santorum's true colors."
"Here's someone ... whose extreme-right social views are as out of touch as they are memorable," Hyers wrote.
Until now, Obama's strategists have mostly been focused on Romney as the candidate with the best organization and most staying power. That was true even when Gingrich was surging. The Chicago team's emails and postings took sharp jabs at Romney's wealth and venture capital background, and his opposition to Wall Street regulation and upper-income tax hikes.
Press Secretary Jay Carney recently shot back at Romney's criticism of the mandate for church-run organizations to cover birth control. "The former governor of Massachusetts is an odd messenger on this," Carney said, noting the state enforced a similar rule under Romney.
Obama himself has sometimes seemed to target Romney, though without using his name — as when he derides those who, like Romney, opposed his auto bailout.
However, with all the attention on Santorum now, Obama's campaign, at least, is reconsidering.
Cutter said it's simply a reflection of "the way the Republican race is unfolding."
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