05/16/2012 08:19 am ET Updated May 16, 2012

Obama's 'Perfect Beast' vs. Romney's 'Hard Times' Pitch

CHICAGO -- Jim Messina, President Barack Obama's campaign manager, is a soft-spoken Montanan who loves order, detail and teamwork.

In 2008, when he was number two in the upstart Obama campaign, Messina didn't have the time to assemble the fast-growing enterprise the way he wanted to. "We had to do everything on the fly," he said, not enjoying the memory.

This time, with the luxury of money and time -- and no primary race to run -- Messina has built out the Chicago headquarters the way he wants.

"It's the perfect beast," he said, pointing beyond his office door to the vast room beyond.

The ball-field-sized expanse evoked the intense informality of a hot tech start-up on the verge of going public: a low-ceilinged room with some 300 savvy 20-somethings hunched over rows of monitors and laptops (or standing up, with laptops perched on boxes), writing code, feeding social media or doing research with the quiet urgency of shareholders who want to cash in.

The "beast" is using the latest in digital and social-media techniques to reach, send issue messages to, and solicit money and volunteer time from the tens of millions of voters the campaign has made contact with over the years. Although the "beast" has lots of tasks, its overriding strategic goal is to ruin Mitt Romney's efforts to be seen as an acceptable alternative for the next steward of the American economy.

"The candidate matters," Obama senior adviser and close friend David Axelrod said on Monday. "It's a contest between two people, and who voters are comfortable with. I don't think you can get elected president if voters don't feel comfortable with you -- with your record, your vision and your values."

That means, above all, attacking Romney's record as CEO at Bain Capital, as governor of Massachusetts and even as leader of the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. The Obama team will try to portray Romney as a selfish, untrustworthy and uncaring man with troglodytic, Bush-style, trickle-down economic views and little personal connection to the lives of average working people.

"Both sides are going to attack and attack some more," said former Mississippi Republican Gov. Haley Barbour. "Romney will attack the president's record and blame his decisions for our hard times. Obama will attack Romney's character and try to say that he is a bad man."

The Romney campaign's theory is that their man, good or bad, is almost beside the point.

Voters are going to blame the incumbent for the shortcomings of the economy, observed Romney senior strategist Stuart Stevens. "The Obama campaign is trying to ignore reality," Stevens said at Romney campaign headquarters in Boston last week. "But you can't tell people they're dry when they know they're wet. At some point, that is going to catch up with the president."

Translation: the Romney campaign will be minimally about Romney, but maximally about the economic track record of President Obama and the current state of the U.S. economy. Stevens' model is Margaret Thatcher's 1979 victory over the British Labour Party with the theme "Labour Isn't Working."

In Chicago, the theory is almost equally single-minded: Make Romney the centerpiece of the election.

So yes, the Obama campaign will defend the president's economic record, especially on the auto bailout and even on the stimulus package. To do otherwise would be to admit error and invite scorn. The campaign is spending $25 million on positive ads.

And yes, the Obama team will continue to play cutting-edge identity politics, appealing to various ethnic, gender and regional concerns, such as it did last week when the president declared his personal belief in the full validity of same-sex marriage.

But the core of Obama's strategy is to focus intently on Mitt the man, in the belief that a presidential election is an affirmative choice, between ideas and polices to be sure, but even more between competing personalities. You can't get elected, Obama strategists say, by the process of elimination.

In Boston, meanwhile, there is a quietly expressed belief that Obama's house of cards that will collapse itself under the weight of bad economic conditions and a gathering public realization that the president has failed.

Romney's headquarters resemble an established, somewhat sleepy brokerage firm. A growing boiler room can be found on the first floor, but the hushed upper floors, lined with traditional offices, are where the mostly unhurried action is.

True, the Romney camp is only now recovering from a brutal primary season. And much of the decision-making action and power may reside elsewhere -- say, wherever Karl Rove happens to be at the moment.

But a key reason is the Romney campaign's sense that things will break its way -- must break its way -- because of the economy.

Perhaps that is why the atmospheres at the two campaigns feel so different. Even though Obama is the incumbent, his headquarters are amped up and ready to attack.