Barack Obama and Mitt Romney are pictured. | AP Photos

Obama’s campaign is looking at Romney as the probable GOP nominee.
By GLENN THRUSH & CARRIE BUDOFF BROWN | 10/12/11 8:37 PM EDT Updated: 10/13/11 7:54 AM EDT

Mitt Romney hasn’t won anything yet, but President Barack Obama’s campaign team is confident enough that Romney is the probable — if not the presumptive — Republican nominee that they have begun aiming their fire almost exclusively at him.

Obama and his Chicago campaign brain trust seem to have come to their conclusion about Romney at the exact moment many Republicans realized he might really go all the way: At the end of Tuesday night’s GOP debate in New Hampshire, when Rick Perry and the rest of the field seemed to disappear into the enervating fog of inevitability that now surrounds the former Massachusetts governor.

They also were motivated, top Democrats told POLITICO, by anger at the GOP field for not hitting Romney sufficiently hard on his well-documented position shifts on abortion rights, civil unions and health care reform.

“The other Republicans have sucked so bad we didn’t have any choice” but begin to target Romney months before the Iowa caucuses, said a top Obama ally, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Indeed, Wednesday marked the unofficial kickoff to the 2012 general election for Team Obama, with senior strategist David Axelrod labeling Romney a hypocrite, an ideological shape-shifter, lapsed pro-choice moderate, political cyborg and the man “carrying [Herbert] Hoover’s tattered banner.”

Obama made a less direct, but unmistakable attack on Romney in a Web video sent to supporters a few hours later, targeting him for dismissing the economic impact of the president’s proposed extension of the payroll tax holiday.

“[O]ne of the leading Republican presidential candidates suggested we … allow taxes to rise by up to $1,000 next year for struggling middle-class families,” said Obama, referring to the estimated impact of failing to renew the tax break. “That’s not how you build an economy where middle-class families can get ahead. That’s not how we put people back to work. We don’t have to accept that future. I certainly don’t.”

It isn’t that Obama’s people are so sold on Romney’s weakness that they are trying to elevate Romney to the status of winner — they aren’t. Or that they think no one else can win — they don’t. In fact, if they needed any proof Romney’s nomination is no done deal, it came in the form of a new Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll — taken before the debate and released Wednesday night — that showed Herman Cain leading the perceived frontrunner 27 percent to 23 percent.

It’s just that the Obama campaign, stocked with 2008 veterans, thinks Obama’s standing in the polls is too low to allow Romney free reign to trash Obama without direct pushback. Moreover, they are thrilled to jump back in the middle of a campaign and eager to go on the attack after years on defense in the besieged West Wing.

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