- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Even without a Democratic challenger, President Obama is planning an aggressive role in early primary states. His operatives are already moving in, organizing volunteers and raising money to answer Republican attacks and do what they can to weaken the GOP’s strongest challengers.

With the election 19 months away, Mr. Obama’s campaign could keep a low profile while Republicans pummel each other. But he won’t be content to watch passively as his potential rivals duke it out.

Three of the earliest-voting states - Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada - will also be strongly contested in the fall of 2012. Likely Republican candidates already are assailing Mr. Obama there, and his aides say they can’t wait months to respond.

“Issues are going to be joined there, statements are going to be made, points are going to be raised,” top Obama adviser David Axelrod said in an interview. “It behooves us to make sure that facts are well-represented.”

“One can’t be passive here,” Mr. Axelrod said.

Democratic insiders say there’s another reason for Mr. Obama’s team to engage in early primary states, including South Carolina, which the president has little chance of winning in the general election: By strategically stirring the pot, his backers may manage to undermine those Republicans seen as most likely to give him a tough fight next year.

Democrats note that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada drew a relatively weak Republican challenger last year, former state lawmaker Sharron Angle, after his organization ran a virtual campaign against Sue Lowden, who was considered the stronger GOP contender. Ms. Angle beat Ms. Lowden in the Republican primary, then lost narrowly to Mr. Reid.

Democratic officials say the Obama campaign efforts are extraordinary, especially so early and for a president with no party challenger. The strategy reflects Democrats’ belief that Mr. Obama can again raise huge sums of money, giving his operatives the luxury of starting now and competing, somewhat mischievously perhaps, in states where the spotlight ordinarily would fall on Republicans alone.

Indeed, Mr. Obama and his aides already have taken potshots at potentially strong challengers, extolling them in ways likely to displease partisan Republicans. The president, with a twinkle in his eye, likes to tell voters that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. served the administration admirably as U.S. ambassador to China.

And White House aides frequently cite former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney as an inspiration for Mr. Obama’s historic health care overhaul, which many Republican activists detest. That’s hardly welcome praise for Mr. Romney, who already must often defend his Massachusetts plan. It ranks among the highest hurdles he will face for the GOP nomination.

Since his 2008 election, Mr. Obama has kept at least one paid political staffer in every state on the Democratic Party’s payroll. Soon, those offices will expand dramatically in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and a few other early-voting states. The Obama campaign will pay some workers, and state Democratic parties will pay others.

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