By Jeff Mason
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - So much for that focused anti-Mitt strategy.
President Barack Obama's campaign signaled Tuesday it would attack the new Republican presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich just as hard as Mitt Romney, the longtime leader in the race, and forecast -- to its delight -- a long battle between the two men for their party's nomination.
Obama's campaign advisers have spent months criticizing Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, in an effort to wound him ahead of November's general election, when they expected him to face off against Obama, a Democrat.
But with Gingrich's surge in polls, the Obama campaign has recalibrated, directing attacks at both men.
"Newt is back," said David Axelrod, Obama's chief campaign strategist, during a briefing with reporters in Washington. "The question is can he sustain this."
Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House of Representatives, ended his 20-year congressional career after Republican losses in the 1998 elections.
Axelrod called Gingrich the original "Tea Partier" who had led three government shut-downs and worked to roll back environmental protections and cut the Medicare health insurance program for the elderly and disabled.
His rise has prompted Axelrod and his team to forecast a Republican primary battle that will last well into next year, perhaps as long as June -- which would, it believes, reveal more weaknesses in both candidates that will help Obama.
"Just remember the higher ... he climbs on the pole, the more you can see his butt," Axelrod said folksily about Gingrich, quoting some "homespun wisdom" he said he heard from a Chicago politician years ago.
"The Speaker's very high on the pole right now, and we'll see how people like the view."
The Obama campaign's attacks lend further legitimacy to Gingrich, who is ahead of Romney in Iowa and South Carolina, and is gaining ground in New Hampshire, where Romney has led for months.
Those three early voting states will help determine the outcome of the nominating contest, which Obama advisers said could still be a close race five or six months from now.
"You could see this thing going way deep, unless someone runs out of momentum or money," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina.
(Editing by Jackie Frank)