WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama's campaign is trying an early "all of the above" strategy against Republican Mitt Romney, criticizing his character, wealth and policy positions in broadsides that may become more focused as the fall election nears.
Romney's record offers both opportunities and dilemmas for Democratic strategists. His widely known shifts in key positions over the years invite the "flip-flopper" charge, which badly hurt Democrat John Kerry in 2004.
But painting Romney as a conviction-free waffler runs counter to another line of attack, which former President Bill Clinton and others argue is more potent: Romney is a dedicated hard-line conservative, bent on radical changes unpalatable to mainstream America.
On top of those two somewhat conflicting messages, Obama's campaign is attacking Romney's background and wealth. A recent TV ad in a $3.6 million multistate effort depicts Romney, a former private equity executive, as a corporate raider who once had a Swiss bank account.
Romney says the election will turn on Obama's economic record. But it's clear his allies are also concerned about the type of character and image issues raised by the flip-flopper and Swiss bank criticisms.
The main super political action committee backing Romney is spending $4.3 million for a TV ad that highlights his role in finding a colleague's lost teenage daughter in 1996. The ad, called "Saved," is airing in at least nine swing states.
It's not unusual for campaigns to run positive, image-building ads when introducing a candidate to a new audience. But the "Saved" spot is running in five states where Romney campaigned heavily, on the ground and airwaves, during the GOP primary: Florida, Ohio, Iowa, New Hampshire and Michigan.
Democrats say the super PAC is using precious resources to try to repair Romney's damaged image. Polls showed that Romney's popularity suffered during the hard-hitting primary, in which the super PAC Restore Our Future flooded airwaves with attack ads his opponents called unfair and distorted.
Romney's advisers say the Democrats' multipronged approach is a sign of flailing by a president whose record is weak.
"They've started trying all these themes," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. Among them, she said, are efforts to paint Romney as out of touch with regular people and linking him to George W. Bush and the unpopular Congress.
"They say Gov. Romney has no core," Saul said. "Now they're trying to say his core is too far to the right. They're just grasping at straws."
Some Democrats say Saul has identified a key contradiction in their approach. Clinton, among others, has encouraged Obama's team to focus almost exclusively on the strongly conservative stands that Romney took in defeating Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry and others for the Republican nomination, which he expects to lock down soon.
Clinton says the Romney-as-extremist message will resonate with crucial swing voters, who tend to be comparatively nonpartisan and more interested in solutions than ideology. The strategy might not prove easy.
A survey by the pro-Democratic group Third Way found that "swing independent" voters see Romney as less conservative than Republicans in general. These voters also see themselves as being closer ideologically to Romney than to Obama on a liberal-to-conservative scale.
Democrats note Romney's opposition to the proposed "Dream Act," which would give illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship if they served in the U.S. military. The stance angers some Hispanic voters, an increasingly important constituency in several tossup states.
Democrats also cite Romney's call for tax cuts for the wealthy (along with other income groups) and his statements that he was a "severely conservative" governor of Massachusetts and "the ideal candidate" for the tea party movement.
Romney "has embraced every extreme position that he can in order to curry favor in the Republican primary," said Rodell Mollineau, president of American Bridge 21st Century, a pro-Democratic research group. He said his organization and others will make sure voters know that record.
If Romney changes position on issues, Mollineau said, his group will publicly note it. But "the fact that he has moved so far to the right is what voters are truly going to be concerned about," Mollineau said. "That's where the election can be won."
Obama recently has emphasized the Romney-is-extreme message.
He told Rolling Stone, "You have a Republican Party and a presumptive Republican nominee that believes in drastically rolling back environmental regulations, that believes in drastically rolling back collective-bargaining rights, that believes in an approach to deficit reduction in which taxes are cut further for the wealthiest Americans and spending cuts are entirely borne by things like education or basic research or care for the vulnerable."
"I don't think their nominee is going to be able to suddenly say, 'Everything I've said for the last six months, I didn't mean,'" Obama told the magazine.
The president said in a Twitter message recently, "If you think Mitt Romney isn't extreme on women's issues, think again." It linked to a video criticizing Romney on several issues, including access to birth control.
Charlie Black, an informal Romney adviser, said that all during the GOP primary, Americans heard Gingrich, Santorum and others say Romney isn't conservative enough. Now, when Obama's allies say Romney is far too conservative, it will ring false and confusing, he said.
"It's all they've got," Black said. "They can't run on his record."
Democratic strategists say they expect Obama's campaign to refine and focus its criticisms of Romney over time, as polls and focus groups reveal each candidate's softest spots.