A beleaguered president seeks re-election. His challenger, a candidate with Massachusetts roots and a presidential demeanor straight out of central casting, has to fight through a primary contest fending off charges of flip-flopping. In the end, the challenger's strength also proves his vulnerability.
Election 2012 is looking a lot like the presidential race of 2004.
Democrats in and around President Barack Obama's campaign are preparing to run against former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — the man they believe likely to emerge from the Republican contest — by borrowing from the playbook George W. Bush and Republicans used to defeat Sen. John Kerry seven years ago.
As candidates, Kerry and Romney are remarkably similar. Both are wealthy men, products of Massachusetts politics, eloquent on the stump but perceived as remote or aloof on the campaign circuit.
Even before Romney has won a single nominating contest, Obama's camp is singling him out as a fickle politician and is preparing to go straight at Romney's perceived strength — his record as a businessman in the face of a flat-line economy. It was a strategy Republicans employed against Kerry, who had to fend off charges of flip-flopping himself and whose strength as a decorated Vietnam veteran running in the first post-Sept. 11 election was undermined by attack ads.
A key feature of the Obama strategy is Romney's tenure as head of Bain Capital, a private equity firm he co-founded in 1984 that saved and launched businesses such as Staples and Domino's Pizza but sliced jobs elsewhere through cost-cutting and consolidation.
It's not the first time Romney's tenure at the helm of Bain Capital has come under attack. Sen. Edward Kennedy pulled away from Romney during his 1994 Senate race in Massachusetts by airing a series of ads that featured workers from an Indiana paper plant that Bain took over, laying off employees, cutting wages and reducing benefits.
"Basically, he cut our throats," a worker said in one of the ads.
"When we made the decision to define him to voters of Massachusetts and took a hard line in doing so, we had a lot of success," said Democratic consultant Tad Devine, who crafted the ads for Kennedy and later served as a senior adviser to Kerry's presidential campaign.
Obama advisers are keenly aware of Kennedy's line of attack and are counting on similar results.
"In his professional life, he was an expert in stripping down companies and leading them to bankruptcy and profiting from these ventures, with a lot of jobs lost in the process," said Obama strategist David Axelrod, previewing a potential line of attack.
"Whenever you're running for president of the United States and you represent yourself in a certain way and you say here's my core asset, then you need to be able to stand by your record," Axelrod added in an interview. "It was problematic for him then; it will be problematic for him now."
Republicans concede that Romney could be vulnerable. But they say the Romney camp should be ready for the onslaught.
Michael Dennehy, a New Hampshire-based Republican strategist, said he remembers Kennedy's anti-Romney ads as being "just brutal and very, very effective."
"To some extent it will be effective again," he said. "The variable is how Romney responds and what they have learned from that 1994 race for Senate."
Top Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom said Obama, faced with a stagnant economy, is grasping for ways to win. "Now, they are employing a 'kill Mitt' strategy," he said. "I suspect they'll go through many other strategies before they realize this election is a referendum on Obama's failed leadership on jobs."
For now, the Obama camp is focusing on portraying Romney as a finger-to-the-wind politician who changes his convictions to meet the political circumstances. They cite his embrace of mandatory health insurance when he was governor of Massachusetts and his criticism of Obama's health care bill, which relies on the same mandate, or his previous stance in favor of abortion rights against his current opposition to abortion.
"I will give him this, he is as vehement and as strong in his convictions when he takes one position as he is when he takes a diametrically opposite view," Axelrod said last week. On Wednesday, Axelrod pounced again, declaring on CBS that Romney appeared to have "no core to him."
No doubt Romney stands as the Republican to beat for his party's nomination. He has maintained a steady position as other Republicans rise and fall around him. Democrats in Obama's circle believe that barring an unexpected development, Romney will be the nominee. As a result, their sideline denunciations are designed to begin a story line they intend to build upon in the general election.
Gerry Chervinsky, a Massachusetts pollster who conducted public surveys during the Kennedy-Romney contest and during Kerry's presidential bid, said attacks on Romney's shifting stances aren't likely to damage him because he confronted them in 2007 and 2008 when he first ran for president.
"The Romney business issue, however, I think would score points," he said. "Teddy (Kennedy) had excellent info and made terrific TV spots and definitely left the impression that Romney's business record was based on laying people off to make big bucks."
Once the ads ran, Romney was unable to recover and lost to Kennedy. But the damage was not permanent. Romney ran for governor in 2002 and won.
So far, with the exception of former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Republicans running against Romney have not tried to turn Romney's business experience against him.
During a debate last week, Huntsman described Romney as "somebody who breaks down businesses, destroys jobs as opposed to creating jobs and opportunity, leveraging up, spinning off, enriching shareholders."
"The whole discussion around this campaign is going to be job creation — how can you win that debate given your background?" Huntsman asked him.
Romney parried the question, noting that Bain Capital had launched Staples and Sports Authority.
"We didn't take things apart and cut them off and sell them off," Romney said. "We instead helped start businesses."