The general election has begun for Mitt Romney and President Obama.
Rick Santorum's exit from the Republican presidential primary on Tuesday cemented Romney's status as the GOP nominee, which the former Massachusetts governor seemed to acknowledge.
Obama, too, has seemed to drop all pretense about whom he'll face in November, referring to Romney by name for the first time earlier this month.
Although Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul remain in the GOP primary, both have scaled back their campaigns immensely, and Gingrich has acknowledged that Romney’s nomination is now essentially a lock.
But, despite the air of inevitability surrounding this match-up, both Obama and Romney are beginning the general-election phase of the campaign on new ground.
“Every poll done up to today about the presidential race is irrelevant,” said Dan Hazelwood, a Republican consultant. “All of those were within the context of, ‘He might be it, he might not be.’ The American people will now begin the process of truly evaluating Romney and Obama in comparison to each other.”
The shift from the primary to the general election was palpable in a flurry of activity that erupted in the hours after Santorum called off his campaign. Prominent Republican figures who had been reluctant to pick sides in the primary — including Gov. Rick Scott (Fla.) and Sens. Pat Toomey (Pa.) and Lindsey Graham (S.C.) — all backed Romney after Santorum exited the race. And Crossroads GPS, a deep-pocketed conservative super-PAC founded by Karl Rove, announced it would spend $1.7 million on television ads in six swing states slamming Obama on energy issues.
Santorum didn’t say Tuesday whether he would back Romney, but Santorum’s spokesman said Romney had already requested a meeting to discuss an endorsement. A nod from the former Pennsylvania senator could provide a major boon to Romney by reassuring dubious social conservatives and allowing Romney and the GOP to present a united front.
“I’m sure Gov. Romney will want [Santorum's] help in some form,” said Henry Barbour, an Republican National Committeeman for Mississippi and Romney supporter. “He has a ton of upsides going forward, and he resonates with a bunch of conservative Americans.”
Even Obama’s team seemed ready to acknowledge the end of the hard-fought GOP primary that had given Democrats more time than they had expected to entrench themselves for the general election.
“It’s no surprise that Mitt Romney finally was able to grind down his opponents under an avalanche of negative ads,” Jim Messina, Obama’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “But neither he nor his special interest allies will be able to buy the presidency with their negative attacks.”
Polling has showed that neither party has a firm grasp on the swing states, but Obama appears to have the advantage as the general election gets under way. Obama led Romney 51 percent to 42 in a USA Today/Gallup poll of 12 swing states released in early April.
Even before Santorum officially bowed out, the race between Romney and Obama had been picking up speed. Obama’s campaign launched their first ads directly targeting Romney last week, and the president delivered a major economic speech at a university in Florida, a crucial general-election state, in which he lashed out at Republicans for taking a slash-and-burn approach to federal spending.
Obama entered the gymnasium in Boca Raton, Fla., to chants of “four more years,” but as his motorcade arrived for his speech, he passed a throng of protesters bearings signs reading “abolish the presidency” and “abort Obama.”
Romney too has had his sights trained on Obama for the past few weeks, ignoring his Republican rivals on the campaign trail in favor of attacks on Obama and dispatching surrogates to challenge the president’s record on taxes and women’s interests.
But with the only other viable challenger out of the race, Romney and his team are now free to focus exclusively on waging battle places that will likely determine control of the White House come November.
“Where he went to campaign and where he spent his money was still focused on the primary calendar. That can all shift now to the general election,” said Charlie Black, an informal Romney adviser and veteran GOP strategist.
Black said Romney might need to follow through with some events in upcoming primary states that had already been scheduled, but that the emphasis moving forward would be on swing states. He said the campaign was also focused on raising general-election funds in conjunction with the RNC. Romney had events scheduled Wednesday in Connecticut and Rhode Island — two states holding primaries on April 24.
The unofficial start of the general election also presented new challenges for Romney, who has spent the past eight months assuaging conservatives’ doubts about his ideology.
Strategists said the moment is approaching when Romney will come under increased scrutiny from the wide segment of the population that tuned out the primary and is just now starting to pay attention to the presidential race. With that comes a chance to redefine himself on positive terms. But Democrats are lying in wait, ready to pounce on any perceived duplicity as an example of a flip-flop by the former Massachusetts governor.
“We fully expect Mitt Romney try and Etch A Sketch away his extreme positions and failed record,” said Democratic National Committee spokeswoman Melanie Roussell, noting that Democrats had spent the past year reminding voters that the policies Romney advocates have been tried and failed. “We’ll stick with what we’re doing not just because it’s working — but because it happens to be the truth.”
But if Romney moves to the center politically or focuses exclusively on courting moderate and independent voters, he risks alienating his party’s base and undercutting GOP turnout in November.
“The immediate goal for him is to unify the Republican Party, to pull all the elements of the GOP under one shield, and then move forward,” said Craig Smith, a speechwriter in the Ford and first Bush administrations. “He’s got to do that.”
Tony Perkins, a major evangelical leader who heads the Family Research Council, said social conservatives are so averse to Obama that they stand no chance of voting for him. But he said there are serious doubts about whether Romney can generate the intensity and enthusiasm necessary to topple an incumbent president.
“If he wants to have the type of support Rick Santorum enjoyed from conservatives,” Perkins said, “he needs to pick up Santorum’s message and work to aggressively shore up his base — or a base that he doesn’t have.”
— Jonathan Easley contributed to this report.