By Jeff Mason and Eric Johnson
WASHINGTON/CHICAGO (Reuters) - Eight candidates took part in Tuesday's Republican presidential debate, but President Barack Obama's campaign focused its attention almost exclusively on one: Mitt Romney.
A day after Representative Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, and Texas Governor Rick Perry debated the economy with the former Massachusetts governor in New Hampshire, the Obama campaign held a conference call with reporters to zoom in on Romney alone.
The call was a sign the Obama campaign is preparing for the man most likely to take on the president in 2012, even if they cannot say that explicitly.
Political campaigns often use media calls to get their message out, and Obama's senior strategist David Axelrod did just that, pointing out inconsistencies he saw in Romney's record on issues from healthcare to tax cuts.
But it was as much what Axelrod did not say that gave an opening into the Obama campaign's views about the Republican primary battle.
By targeting Romney, the veteran strategist showed the Obama campaign believes -- without explicitly saying so -- that the Republican frontrunner will likely be the nominee.
Asked whether that was the case, Axelrod demurred.
"I'm not going to make that decision for the Republican Party," he said. "One of his (Romney's) problems has been that he hasn't inspired a whole lot of confidence and enthusiasm among Republicans."
The Romney campaign seemed to take the attention as a badge of honor. "It is clear President Obama and his campaign see Mitt Romney as the one candidate who can beat him," said the candidate's spokesman Ryan Williams.
"They know President Obama has failed on the issues most important to voters: creating jobs and the economy."
Axelrod said Romney had changed positions on issues such as abortion and gay rights, giving a window into the topics the Obama campaign sees as vulnerabilities if Romney wins the Republican presidential nominating contest next year.
"Across the political spectrum people have the same question...if you are willing to change positions on fundamental issues of principle, how can we know what you would do as president, how can we trust who you would be?" Axelrod said.
"That's the problem he has in his own party. That's the problem, if he does become the nominee, he's going to have in general."
(Editing by Chris Wilson)
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