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updated 5/23/2011 10:45:25 AM ET 2011-05-23T14:45:25

Maybe President Barack Obama and his friends got tired of waiting for the 2012 campaign to start.

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The early action was supposed to be in the competitive Republican primary. But the White House and its allies are meddling from the sidelines, hoping to exploit the Republicans' 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 early primary state Saturday, his first since forming a presidential exploratory committee.

Another top Republican takes pass on presidential bid

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.

Story: Huntsman: Ditch bickering in name of patriotism

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 Republican 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.

Pitting Romney vs. Gingrich
Obama has offered winking praise of Romney before. But Democrats feel Gingrich, the former House Speaker, gave them a new opening on the health care front when he called a budget bill that was recently passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives "radical." It would reduce Medicare's costs and benefits over time and convert Medicaid to a state block grant program. Medicare is the government-run program providing health care coverage to the elderly, while Medicaid covers the poor.

Story: Ryan leaves slight opening for GOP nomination

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 Republicans' 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.

'Rapid response' criticism
The Democratic National Committee maintains a barrage of "rapid response" criticisms of Romney, Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and other Republican contenders.

Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

"Tim Pawlenty: Uninspiring at Best," said one DNC statement, based on portions of a Time magazine article. Pawlenty is expected to declare his candidacy on Monday in the leadoff caucus state of Iowa.

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 Republican 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."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Decision Time: GOP Candidates

  1. Closed captioning of: Decision Time: GOP Candidates

    >>> after deliberating for more than a year, indiana governor mitch daniels announced late saturday night he will not be running for president. is the 2012 field set or could a late entry shake up the republican race yet? ron brownstein is the editor of the editorial group. is this the republican field and what impact do you feel daniels not running will have on the race?

    >> i think it may be the republican field, but i think there are a lot of establishment republicans out there still searching for somebody else. they're looking around saying maybe it's chris christie , maybe it's jeb bush . all of these guys said they're not going to run. this has been a topsy turfy year. maybe you could see somebody else get in. i couldn't tell you who. we'll see down the road. what daniels does, him not being there sets up a situation where you have mitt romney , who is the guy who ran before, and this is a party that usually nominates the next guy in line. you know, for all intents and purposes, he's the guy to beat. you've got all these other folks, tim pawlenty , jon huntsman who is going to get in who are looking at him and trying to position themselves as the alternative to mitt romney .

    >> you look at it in terms of the coalition. daniels not coming in is good news for romney . daniels would compete for the upscale, economically focused college educated part of the party. the big hole and why rick perry is an interesting name, there really isn't a logical candidate for the more culturally conservative party .

    >> what about michele bachmann ?

    >> she is kind of a niche candidate, the niche candidate, i think have petered out, even mike huckabee has a ceiling. tim pawlenty can appeal to that but reach beyond that. they've showed a lot of resistance to romney in the past. he's still polling poorly in the south in 2012 . with huckabee out, those voters are now more in play. the question is can anybody scoop them up? pawlenty , as i said, seems like the most logical candidate but he's not a perfect candidate either.

    >> why are you not talking about nutd gingrich? are you counting him out?

    >> he has had a rocky, that may be an understatement, a rocky ten days, two weeks. it's not just that. he's also incredibly polarizing. i think many republican voters like that about him, but electability is an issue. they hate barack obama . they want to beat barack obama with a passion. they're going to look at newt gingrich and look at the past two weeks and say not so sure he can do this.

    >> for pawlenty , is it iowa or bust?

    >> i don't think so. i think the history of it is, in iowa , 60% of the vote is evangelical. they tend to splitter in iowa . there is another opportunity for pawlenty down the road. if it comes down to romney and one other candidate, one of the big dynamics is can that other candidate mobilize the social conservative part of the party, because they have been resistant to romney in the past. if pawlenty does not do well in iowa , it makes that harder. there is still an opportunity. certainly a bachmann in the race complicates his path because of the splintering of that vote in iowa .

    >> we haven't mentioned sarah palin .

    >> nobody seems to know what she's going to do.

    >> you have to come back

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.

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