TROY, Mich. — A year before the presidential election, President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney already are slugging away at each other day after day, as if they're already their parties' nominees.
Except Romney hasn't won anything yet. He's one of eight major GOP candidates. The first Republican caucus, in Iowa, isn't until Jan. 3, followed by a series of states voting for months all across the country.
Yet the Obama re-election campaign has been running against the former Massachusetts governor as if it's fall 2012, a highly unusual strategy for an incumbent president so early in the election cycle. And Romney focuses his criticism on Obama far more than on any, or all, of his GOP rivals.
Wednesday night, minutes after the Republicans finished debating in Rochester, Mich., Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt e-mailed a statement to reporters.
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"Mitt Romney says he's a man of 'steadiness and constancy,' but the only thing he's consistent about is saying anything to get elected," LaBolt said.
That fresh blast at Romney fit a recent pattern:
_ Wednesday. A few hours before the debate, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, the Democratic Party chair, appeared with other Democrats nearby. They stood in front of a podium that read, "Mitt Romney: Wrong for Michigan. Wrong for the middle class."
They held a news conference to rail against Romney's economic views, barely mentioning any other Republican.
_ Last Friday. Just before Romney unveiled his fiscal policy plan, the Obama campaign sent the news media a detailed memo challenging his assertions.
_ Oct. 30, David Plouffe, a senior Obama adviser, told NBC that Romney "has no core. And you know, every day almost, we find another issue."
Plouffe then recited a list of what he called Romney's changes in position: gay rights, abortion rights, the environment and more.
"You get the sense that if Mitt Romney, you know, if he thought it was good to say the sky was green and the grass was blue to win an election, he'd say it," Plouffe said.
_ Priorities USA Action, an independent activist group led by former Obama White House staffers, has a new web page devoted to criticizing Romney.
Is the Obama campaign that worried about Romney?
Romney forces like to think so. "Mitt Romney's the one they're afraid of," said his strategist Stuart Stevens.
Recent polls find that Romney would be the strongest challenger for Obama among the eight major candidates who are seeking the GOP nomination, though not by much.
An Oct. 31-Nov. 7 poll in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida — three battleground states in next year's election — found Obama and Romney neck and neck.
A Nov. 2-5 NBC-Wall Street Journal national poll had Obama at 49 percent to Romney's 43 percent; other polls have shown the race tighter. The error margin was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
"Currently," Gallup Poll analyst Jeffrey Jones said, "Romney appears to be a slightly stronger challenger" than his rivals. Romney scores better with independents.
Romney has been running against Obama almost as hard as he's been running against his GOP rivals. In August, he ridiculed what he called Obama's "magical misery tour" when the president took a bus trip through some swing states.
At Wednesday night's debate, he asked, "You want to get America's economy going? We know how to do it. Just do almost the exact opposite of what President Obama has done."
This week he told Michigan voters, "President Obama inherited an economy in crisis. He proceeded to make it worse. He recently put forward yet another jobs plan, or at least a jobs plan is what he calls his proposal. In fact, it's just another budget-busting stimulus bill. Even members of his own party won't back it."
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Asked why the Obama forces have been attacking Romney so eagerly, LaBolt pointed to a Pew Research Center study released last month. It showed that Obama got only 9 percent positive media scrutiny from May 2 to Oct. 9, while 57 percent of his coverage was neutral and 34 percent negative.
Only former House Speaker Newt Gingrich got more negative coverage, 35 percent. Romney coverage was rated 26 percent positive, 47 percent neutral and 27 percent negative.
"The records of Mitt Romney and the Republican candidates have thus far largely been brushed over, as the horse race has been covered much more closely than the policy positions they've laid out," LaBolt said.
"Until somebody steps up to fill that void, it's our obligation to ensure that Americans have a clear view about the direction in which Romney would lead the country."
Wasserman Schultz said it was important to make such points in Michigan, where federal aid rescued General Motors and Chrysler. Romney, on the other hand, favored a managed bankruptcy and authored a 2008 New York Times essay headlined "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt."
"He's clearly taken that position, and people need to know that," she said.
But why not hold other Republican candidates equally accountable?
"He's one of the leading candidates in the polls," she said.
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