WASHINGTON, May 23, 2011 -- Democrats are hoping to put their imprint on the 2012 Republican presidential primary with an unlikely weapon: the hug.
Leading Democrats have spent the past few weeks embracing several leading likely GOP candidates and showering them with praise for holding Democrat-favored positions on an array of key issues.
President Obama credits former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney with creating a model for Democrats' health care reform law that includes an individual insurance mandate.
"With a little assist from the former governor of Massachusetts, we said that health care should no longer be a privilege in this country," Obama told supporters at a fundraiser in Boston last week.
Members of the Obama administration have been praising former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman for his role as part of their diplomatic team, before he decided to call it quits to possibly run against his former boss.
"Working well with me will be a great asset" in the GOP primary, Obama joked earlier this year.
Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, favors same-sex civil unions and has supported the Democrats' effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through cap-and-trade and stimulus plan to spur economic recovery.
Former President Jimmy Carter, a liberal figure anathema to many Republicans, said Huntsman was "very attractive to me personally."
And then there's former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who drew unlikely applause from congressional Democrats last week after calling Republican Rep. Paul Ryan's controversial plan to overhaul Medicare "radical."
"Newt and I are considered political opposites, but I couldn't agree more about what he said Sunday about House Republicans' plan to end Medicare," said liberal Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who organized a conference call with reporters to talk about Gingrich.
"It was refreshing to hear such candor from a top Republican," he said.
Democratic strategists say the public affection for Republicans is a deliberate attempt to highlight GOP moderates at a time when many primary voters are looking for conservative ideological purity.
"There's certainly a humorous aspect to this -- but when they do actually have positions that are Democratic ones that they're trying to shed, it is important for Americans to know that, for Republicans to know that," Democratic strategist John Lapp said.
Lapp said many Democrats hope their influence might nudge Republicans to select a presidential nominee further to the right and with less likely appeal among independents in a general election.
"This is an honest and fair, if not back-handed, type of compliment," Lapp said. "It's certainly fair game."
But Republican strategists say Democrats' praise is far from poisonous and will likely have no impact on primary voters or the outcome of the election.
"It is too cute by half," GOP strategist Jon McHenry said.
"I don't think the Tea Party or any Republican primary voter takes Obama at face value," he said. "So I don't think that they buy into the whole cutesy, 'oh we really love him so you guys should hate him' stuff."
McHenry said Gingrich has since clarified his comments on the Ryan Medicare plan, making his views more consistent with Republicans than Democrats would like.
He also said the attempt to sully Huntsman by highlighting his record within the Obama administration is "just dumb."
"If Republican primary voters fall for letting the Obama administration pick their nominee by who they don't praise, shame on us," McHenry said. "It ultimately strikes me as a sign of Democrats' weakness. We now know who they're afraid to run against."