Officially, Barack Obama has better things to worry about. “We’re not very focused on that race,” White House spokesman Jay Carney tells reporters about the Republican presidential primary. But those same reporters are bombarded with a dozen e-mails a day from the Democratic National Committee, which Obama effectively controls, trying to mess with the Republican race. Just yesterday, David Axelrod, a senior Obama campaign strategist, accused Mitt Romney of being a part of the “Martini Party” (as opposed to the Tea Party) and Brad Woodhouse, the communications director at the DNC, released a memo accusing Romney of having something called “multiple political personality disorder.” So what’s going on?
In point of fact, Obama’s team, at the White House, at the Democratic National Committee and at the Chicago Campaign headquarters are focused like lasers on the GOP race, and for good reason. This is what incumbent Presidents do. As I describe in the upcoming issue of TIME, now available online to subscribers, there is a long tradition of incumbents messing with the internal contests of the opposing party. This was the purpose of Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks campaign in 1972. It was the reason that Ed Gillespie, the former head of the Republican National Committee, traveled the country in 2003 and 2004 giving speeches about John Kerry and the rest of the Democratic contenders. “We were methodical,” says Jim Dyke, who was the RNC’s communications director at the time.
This time around, the Obama team is interested not just in creating unfavorable storylines about the GOP candidates, especially Mitt Romney, but in getting the candidates to go after each other. As one Democratic strategist told me, “We have driven the narrative that other candidates are picking up and driving as well.” Example: The DNC puts out an online spot on Monday raising questions about Mitt Romney’s claim that he is not a career politician. A reporter asks Newt Gingrich about the Romney claim. Newt shoots back, saying he will let reporters decide if running for office since 1994 makes someone a career politician.
You see how that worked? The DNC makes it an issue. Reporters pick up the issue. And the candidates take swipes at each other, echoing the GOP talking points. The most successful example of this so far has been the DNC’s Mitt v. Mitt campaign, which turned into a question for Romney last week from Fox News’ Bret Baier. Romney reacted badly to the question–”I’m glad that the Democratic ads are breaking through,” he quipped–and his bad interview with Fox News echoed for days through the conservative media, including on Fox News, where Baier discussed Romney’s displeasure at length.
There will be more to come, as the GOP race is on the verge of taking an ugly turn in the final weeks before voting begins. So the next time Carney says, “We’re not very focused on this race,” remember that this is what magicians call misdirection. They are more focused than ever.