WASHINGTON — One by one, GOP presidential candidates, and some who are still on the sidelines, have checked "thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican" at the door as they turned their barbs away from President Obama and directed them toward each other.
The heightened rhetoric comes as the candidates prepare for an Aug. 11 debate in Iowa and the influential Aug. 13 straw poll in Ames, Iowa, which is considered an early indicator of support for any candidate there.
Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor and GOP frontrunner, has been the target of the most heat from his fellow Republicans recently over his apparent hesitance to weigh in on the fiery debt-ceiling debate until the 11th hour.
Hours before Romney's arrival, the Democratic National Committee rounded up local reporters for a conference call with Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who delivered a scripted critique of Romney's subpar job-creation record as governor.
After Romney's brief campaign appearance at the mall had ended, local Democratic officials were at the scene, telling reporters that many of the businesses there had been closed during George W. Bush's administration. The Democratic rebuttal became part of TV and newspaper accounts of the event.
Targeted attacks immediately before and after an opposing candidate's event — known as "bracketing" — are a timeworn campaign tactic. But the Obama team has applied it virtually everywhere Romney has gone in recent months.
Romney's campaign advisors regard the attention as a backhanded compliment, confirmation of his status as his party's front-runner. "It's clear that the White House has Mitt Romney on the brain," said Andrea Saul, a Romney campaign spokeswoman.
As with any negative campaign, the goal is to undermine the challenger's reputation and, as much as possible, shift the focus of the election away from the incumbent's shortcomings.
"People judge an incumbent president on the basis of how well he's performed, and they've consistently told us over the course of Obama's first term that his most important job has been to fix the economy. If people feel no progress has been made, it'll be difficult for him to be reelected," said independent pollster Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.
But if the president's challenger is seen as "too risky," he added, "then an incumbent who has performance problems could possibly squeak by."
Working mainly behind the scenes, the Obama campaign, which does not need to worry about a primary challenge, is already at work planting seeds of doubt about his potential opponent, whomever that may be.
Dozens of staffers, including a rapid-response team at party headquarters in Washington and researchers at the president's Chicago campaign office, monitor statements by leading Republican candidates and strike back, often within minutes. Their work is supplemented by a new Washington-based "super PAC," American Bridge 21st Century. It employs 15 video "trackers" who record Republican campaign events around the country and ship the results to a war room in Washington that employs 25 people and can provide the footage to other pro-Obama organizations.
Super PACS are groups that can raise and spend unlimited amounts on behalf of a candidate, as long as they don't coordinate directly with the campaign. One such group, Priorities USA, created by two former Obama White House aides, has already run TV attack ads against Romney.
Lehane compared Obama to the last Democratic president who also faced no primary opposition. President Clinton, he said, was "liberated to go out and execute a long-term plan with ruthless efficiency." The White House-directed assault on the Republican nominee, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, effectively sealed the president's second-term victory months before election day.