Thursday's front-page campaign story by Jeff Zeleny and Jim Rutenberg prominently featured Obama campaign advisor David Axelrod frankly discussing how the party plans to influence the GOP primary by pitting Newt Gingrich (himself a "juicy target") against Mitt Romney: 'Democrats See 2-Horse Race, Adding Whip.' It's the kind of early White House attack the Times once disapproved of, at least when done by Republican President George W. Bush.
The White House and its allies are starting to turn their sights to Newt Gingrich, invoking his tumultuous history as House speaker to brand him as the 'godfather of gridlock,' a testament to his new viability and the sudden realization that he could be President Obama's Republican opponent.
Democrats have made it clear they have no plans of letting up on Mitt Romney. But they are hoping to help stretch the Republican nominating contest into a longer and bloodier battle - meaning they are eager to define Mr. Gingrich for voters in unflattering terms without necessarily wounding him fatally and assisting Mr. Romney, whom they still view as a formidable general election opponent.
The jabs at Mr. Gingrich are one part gleeful mischief-making and one part serious due diligence. Democrats have dusted off old opposition research files on him and are digging deeper into his time in Congress and the private sector, even as they study how his candidacy could resonate with voters in important battleground states.
For the president's team, it is a careful calibration.
Their unrelenting attacks on Mr. Romney, which culminated in a humorous Web video of his evolution on a variety of issues, were viewed by many Republicans as a devastating success. Another video about Mr. Romney is expected on Thursday morning.
A photo caption reveled in the targeting of Romney's opponent: 'Newt Gingrich and his wife, Callista, signed their books on Monday in Manhattan. Democrats say that Mr. Gingrich's rocky tenure in the House should provide a particularly juicy target.'
Mr. Obama's political advisers emphasized that they believed the broad contours of the race would be the same between the president and Mr. Gingrich as they would be between the president and Mr. Romney. But, they said, Mr. Gingrich's rocky tenure in the mid- to late 1990s would provide a particularly juicy target that could help portray him as a symbol of the past.
'It wasn't that long ago, and the debates and the tactics were very much what we're dealing with today,' Mr. Axelrod said. 'I mean it was shutting down the government in order to defund the E.P.A., and to defund education programs and to cut Medicare in order to give tax cuts to the wealthy. These guys are in the back-to-the-future machine.'
Gingrich declined to respond, and the Times didn't feature any Republican spokesmen in reply to Axelrod's partisan assaults. Zeleny and Rutenberg claimed some success on behalf of the Democratic effort.
While it is hardly unusual for sitting presidents to size up their prospective rivals, the White House began taking its engagement with Mr. Romney to another level, essentially becoming the ninth candidate in the Republican race. The Democrats were initially trying to define Mr. Romney for the general election, but their efforts also appear to have helped slow him in the primary.
'You have these candidates spending virtually all their time criticizing the president,' said Robert Gibbs, a political adviser to the president. 'That wasn't something we were going to let happen for months and months and months.'
By contrast, when sitting Republican President George W. Bush began criticizing probable Democratic nominee Sen. John Kerry back in March 2004, much deeper into that year's Democratic presidential primary, political reporter Adam Nagourney seemed shocked by Bush's 'fierce campaign of attacks' and 'orchestrated barrage of criticism.' Nagourney complained that 'Mr. Bush reached back nine years to single out for criticism a proposal by Mr. Kerry to cut spending on intelligence, the kind of very directed attack that is unusual to hear from a president eight months before Election Day.' The word 'attack' appeared 10 times in the story.
On February 27, 2004, reporter Elisabeth Bumiller characterized Bush's criticisms as an 'assault': 'President Bush continued his assault on Senator John Kerry on Thursday as he took his new speech to Kentucky, where he also collected hundreds of checks for a campaign that has raised more than $150 million.'
By contrast, there was no 'assault' on Romney and Gingrich in Thursday's front-page story, and only two references to 'attacks,' and no hint from the reporters that the Obama administration is somehow out of line to influence the opposing party's primary.