General Election Game On: Obama Campaign Revs Anti-Romney Offensive

PHOTO: Barack ObamaPlayBrendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images
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In mere seconds Wednesday morning, President Obama's campaign attack machine showed what months of preparations to take on long-expected challenger Mitt Romney can do.

When a Romney campaign aide waffled in response to a reporter's question about the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, Democrats seized upon the exchange, spun and thrust it into the media spotlight through a coordinated flurry of tweets, blog posts and email blasts.

The rapid-fire assault, advancing Obama's case that the Republican candidate is bad for women, left the Romney campaign on the defensive, insisting the former governor supports pay equity and battling a steady drumbeat of negative headlines all day.

The episode was yet another signal that the general election campaign is fully underway, and it offered a glimpse of the full-throttled offense aimed squarely at Romney as he retools for the months ahead.

At Obama's re-election headquarters in Chicago, where full-time paid staff now exceed 300, a dedicated task force of Romney monitors watch his every word, firing off responses on social media and over email, drawing upon troves of opposition research quietly amassed during the GOP primary campaign.

In the past few weeks, the effort has intensified. While the campaign put out just 10 official news releases in February, for example, it topped 27 in March and has set an even more aggressive pace of news statements, reports and memos so far this month.

Conference calls with reporters, even the campaign's newest TV ad released last week, have begun to directly attack Romney as the likely GOP presidential nominee -- something they had not done until recently.

Obama aides say their strategy is to not let attacks on the president go unanswered, or let Romney comments on hot-button issues go unspun.

"His attempts to etch-a-sketch his extreme positions won't work, especially with women," Obama campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said of Romney in a statement.

Meanwhile, Democratic strategists, who spent much of the primary season painting Romney as an unprincipled flip-flopper, have shifted their line of attack against the former governor to primarily hammer him as an "out of touch" elite who cannot understand the middle class.

A web video released by the Obama team Wednesday, billed as an unflattering clip reel of from Romney's primary campaign, doubled down on that theme.

The "out of touch" meme is also deeply intertwined with Obama's Buffett Rule campaign, which has in ways subtle and not so subtle cast Romney as the poster boy for tax inequality the rule is meant to fix.

"Tax fairness is one of the defining issues in this election, and supporting this policy is one of the touchstones of this campaign," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina wrote in an email to supporters this week.

"Not only does Mitt Romney oppose the Buffett Rule, but he wants to protect special breaks and loopholes that help wealthy Americans like himself avoid paying their fair share," he said.

The Romney campaign has dismissed the attacks as an attempt to distract from the President Obama's record on the economy and his "broken promises and empty rhetoric" from the 2008 campaign.

The Republican National Committee, which has a robust rapid-response operation of its own, has been keeping up steady pressure on Obama and will escalate efforts further into the fall, officials say.

Still, a bruising primary fight and the effective messaging pushed by Obama's campaign have left Romney lagging behind Obama in likeability, empathy and other personal attributes among voters, according to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll.

Obama holds large double-digit leads over Romney on likeability and empathy overall, and among women leads Romney by 19 points.

"We're getting started with a general election campaign and people will get to know me better and they'll get to know him better as well," Romney told a crowd of supporters in Hartford, Conn., Wednesday.

"But the person I'm out of touch with is Barack Obama, I'm in touch with the American people."