December 8, 2011
By  and , The New York Times

WASHINGTON — 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 White House is not conceding that by focusing on Mr. Romney, it aimed its initial attacks at the wrong opponent. But in taking on Mr. Gingrich as well, it is underscoring its determination to play an active role in the opposing party’s primary.

“Look, for the longest time, Gingrich was not really a factor in this race, he was left for dead at the checkout counter at Tiffany’s,” said David Axelrod, a chief adviser to the president’s re-election bid. “Now he is resurgent and he could be the nominee.”

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.

“The Republicans have favored the president with a lot of their attention, and I understand that, that’s politics and that’s actually the process,” Mr. Axelrod said Wednesday during a question and answer session sponsored by Bloomberg View in Manhattan. “We’re going to be as respectful to them as they are of us, and favor their front-runners with our attention.”

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.”

Mr. Gingrich, through a spokesman, declined to reply to the criticism. He spent the day in Washington, trying to persuade conservative leaders that he was the party’s strongest nominee. In an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, he renewed his call to challenge the president to seven three-hour debates in the general election.

“We’ll see how they feel about it,” Mr. Gingrich said.

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