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On private call, Republicans say attacking Obama personally is too dangerous: Yahoo News exclusive

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Obama greets a crowd at Wilkes Barre/Scranton International Airport (Carolyn Kaster/AP)

Republicans on a private Republican National Committee conference call with allies warned Tuesday that party surrogates should refrain from personal attacks against President Barack Obama, because such a strategy is too hazardous for the GOP.

"We're hesitant to jump on board with heavy attacks" personally against President Obama, Nicholas Thompson, the vice president of polling firm the Tarrance Group, said on the call. "There's a lot of people who feel sorry for him."

Recent polling data indicates that while the president suffers from significantly low job approval ratings, voters still give "high approval" to Obama personally, Thompson said.

Voters "don't think he's an evil man who's out to change the United States" for the worse--even though many of the same survey respondents agree that his policies have harmed the country, Thompson said. The upshot, Thompson stressed, is that Republicans should "exercise some caution" when talking about the president personally.

On the call--which Yahoo News was invited to attend because of a mistake by someone on the staff of the Republican National Committee--Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary for George W. Bush, encouraged Republicans to turn around Democratic attacks lobbed at the GOP presidential candidates (Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich, for starters) for "flip-flopping."

"I don't like playing defense," Fleischer said. He suggested the listeners to Tuesday's call label the president as a flip-flopper on the following issues: opposing tax increases for those making under $250,000, opposing the Bush tax cuts, opposing raising the debt limit, and opposing a health care mandate.

"When it comes to flip flopping, Barack Obama is the king of flip flopping," Fleischer said. "You can offer that to anybody," he suggested.

Thompson noted that Obama may be boxed in by similarly strong personal approval numbers for Republican lawmakers as he ponders attacking the GOP House majority during the 2012 campaign.

"Obama running against Congress is not going to work," Thompson said.

In a poll conducted in early November by the Tarrance Group and the Democratic group Lake Research for Politico and George Washington University, voters gave their personal member of Congress a 46 percent approval rating--even higher than the 44 percent personal approval numbers for Obama in the survey, Thompson said. (The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.)

Fifty-eight percent of the voters surveyed disapproved of how Obama is handling relations with Congress, according to Tarrance's November poll.

"It's a tough road for him when you look at those numbers," Thompson said of the president.

Thompson said that his group's research suggests that voters are giving Obama higher approval on foreign policy than on the issue of jobs and the economy.

Voters aren't simply looking at the president as the symbol for a "broken Washington," Thompson said.

Update 3:40 p.m.: Republican National Committee communications director Sean Spicer followed up with Yahoo News to say the story "misses the point" and that Tuesday's call wasn't about ways to avoid attacking the president, it was about sharing the best strategies for attacks. "It makes more sense to focus on his failed policies than on personal attacks," Spicer told Yahoo News of their data regarding the president.

Ari Fleischer also emailed Yahoo News to share his complete list of Obama flip-flops, which, in addition to the points above, includes: promising to cut the deficit in half by the end of his first term; vowing to lower unemployment below 8 percent following the stimulus; falling short on shovel-ready jobs; contradicting himself on constitutional rights-- condemning Bush but then supporting "warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detentions, secret renditions and kept [Guantanamo] open; giving lobbyists waivers to work at the White House after saying they wouldn't work there; and refusing public financing in 2008 after vowing to accept it.

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