Defining a rival early

Some of Mitt Romney’s Republican rivals, most notably Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry, have invested quite a bit of energy lately in going after the former governor’s private-sector background. Very quickly, the political world started catching up to what lefty blogs have been arguing for months: Bain Capital is a potent, potential campaign-changing issue.

And as Romney takes his lumps, what does the Obama political team think? Jackie Calmes reports today on how delighted Chicago is at the recent developments.

For months David Axelrod, President Obama’s senior strategist, has argued with evident anticipation that Mitt Romney offers a glass jaw when he boasts that his business record sets him apart as a presidential candidate. Now Mr. Romney’s Republican rivals have beaten the Obama team to the punch, and Democrats could hardly be more pleased.

“It’s a total win-win,” said Geoff Garin, a Democratic pollster who works with a group supporting Mr. Obama. “Either Romney will be the nominee or one of those other, even more unelectable candidates will be.” […]

Democratic operatives say Republicans’ words are certain to be heard again in advertisements this fall if, as many expect, Mr. Romney is the nominee.

“We’ll be able to show what his rivals said about him and what workers have said about him,” said Brad Woodhouse, communications director for the Democratic National Committee. “The fact that his own Republican rivals — from a party that talks about itself as being for the free market — are offended about his practices in the private sector makes our case a lot easier.”

There is a chance, of course, that as a matter of campaign strategy, this is all happening too early for Democrats’ liking. For one thing, the issue may seem “stale” by the time fall comes around, months after it was a major topic of discussion. For another, as the race for the Republican nomination winds down, there may be a sense that Romney has been inoculated — the questions about his ruthless greed and mass layoffs would enter the “asked and answered” category.

Those concerns are legitimate, but there’s ample evidence Dems are willing to risk it. An Obama campaign strategist told Benjy Sarlin, “I would have preferred to wait, yes, to keep the bottle of whup-ass fresher. At the same time — and this is important to note — having the Republicans eat their own actually makes the Bain story more potent than we ever could because it instantly validates it as a line of attack and falls on independent ears as a matter of legitimate debate, not as a partisan line of attack.”

That’s persuasive to me. It’s one thing for Democrats to have concerns about Romney mass layoffs; it’s another to have those concerns be bipartisan.

I’d just add that there’s another value in getting these attacks out early: they define a candidate in ways that prove hard to shake. With Republicans’ help, Romney will spend 2012 as the guy with a “controversial” business background — the one who got rich laying off American workers and crushing companies and communities for a quick buck, vulture-style.

It takes away what’s supposed to be Romney’s big strength, and it does so before he’s even introduced to much of the country.