Romney steals Obama’s spotlight for first time, with help from Rick Santorum

When Rick Santorum suspended his presidential campaign on Tuesday, it offered a rare instance of a positive story for Mitt Romney that knocked President Obama off the front pages.

The same day Santorum exited the 2012 primary fight, Obama delivered his much-feted speech on the so-called "Buffett Rule" at a campaign-style event in Florida.

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But the president’s effort to position himself as a middle-class warrior against the avaricious super-rich was overshadowed in the coverage of outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as this newspaper, by the Santorum news.

Obama didn’t even make the front page of the Post or the Times, though he might have without Santorum’s announcement.

The president has been at pains to ensure that neither Romney nor any other Republican dominates the news cycle during the longer-than-expected primary process.

Perhaps the most striking example of Obama’s counter-programming strategy was his decision to address the United Auto Workers union members in late February. There, the president emphasized his bailout of the Detroit car industry on the same day the GOP Michigan primary took place.

By contrast, it is difficult to think of a single example to date when Romney has knocked Obama seriously off his game. Even when the president got himself into hot water over the issue of contraception and the Catholic Church, it was Romney rivals like Santorum and Newt Gingrich who led the charge against him. At other times, the Republican National Committee has taken up the attack.

Still, the Romney campaign disputes the idea that they have taken their eye off the ball where Obama is concerned. In an email to The Hill, Andrea Saul, the campaign's press secretary, said: "For Mitt Romney, this race has always been about defeating President Obama and getting Americans back to work. From the time that Mitt Romney announced his candidacy, he has run his campaign with the message that President Obama has failed to fix the economy."

The Romney campaign has intensified its efforts in recent weeks to counter the president. Romney’s communications director, Gail Gitcho, offered a counterpoint to Obama’s "Buffett Rule" speech on Tuesday, assailing him in a statement for what she framed as a pro-taxation position that would choke off economic growth.

“President Obama has made it clear that raising taxes is the one campaign promise he will keep,” she said. “Mitt Romney wants to lower the tax rate so that more Americans can keep their hard-earned money and small businesses can begin to grow  and hire.”

Also on Tuesday, the Romney campaign organized a conference call featuring former U.S. Treasurer Bay Buchanan, among others, to push back against Obama’s arguments that his administration has benefited women.

A series of recent polls have shown Obama opening up a large gap over Romney among female voters. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released Tuesday showed Romney trailing by 19 percentage points among women, and other recent surveys tell a similar story.

On Wednesday, the Romney campaign sent reporters comments from Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Reps. Mary Bono Mack (R-Calif.) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), along with former Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Kerry Healey, insisting that Obama’s policies had hurt women.

Topping it all off, the candidate himself appeared on Fox News Channel to insist that Obama’s policies “have been really a war on women.”

On Thursday the Romney campaign is hosting a conference call, spearheaded by former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu (R), that is intended to counter a visit to the state by Vice President Biden. 

Sununu and other Romney surrogates will "discuss how President Obama's failed economic policies have hurt New Hampshire families," the campaign promises.

Republicans hope that steps like this could mark a turning point of sorts. The former Massachusetts governor, finally liberated from the need to conduct a serious primary campaign, could be able to turn full force on Obama for the first time.

“I think [Romney’s] fought him with one hand tied behind his back up till now,” veteran Republican strategist Ed Rollins told The Hill. “Early on, a lot of time and resources had to go into preparing for those 20 or so debates. Then a lot of time and resources had to go into fighting multi-state primaries. Now he can really begin articulating the mistakes he believes Obama has made.”

Rollins and other Republican strategists caution against taking too dim a view of Romney’s counter-programming efforts so far, emphasizing not just the prolonged nature of the primary process but also the inherent advantages of incumbency for Obama. Any president, they note, can set the agenda, especially in the days before the opposition party has settled upon its candidate.

“I do think that Obama has been able to pick his spots freely as the primary campaign has wound on,” Republican strategist Keith Appell said. “Republicans have been focused on each other rather than on him. But that is going to change dramatically. The election has not been cast in clear terms yet. And it will be.”

Rollins harkened back, with some concern, to his own experience of the advantages of incumbency, when he ran Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign.

“I had my whole media strategy prepared for whenever [Walter] Mondale was going to become the Democratic nominee, as I had always expected he would. That’s what Obama has done, and what his team has done, with Romney.” 

For Romney, Rollins added, the general election will be “a challenge.” In contrast to an underfunded and sometimes self-damaging Republican field, he will now face “a very good candidate with a great deal of money.”

There is no doubt that the Romney campaign is training its fire on Obama as never before. But some observers argue that the election is ultimately going to be won and lost on economic fundamentals, rather than any messaging or counter-programming either candidate has to offer.

“This election is going to be about Obama anyways,” asserts Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “We overrate the importance of the challenger’s campaign. I don’t know if Romney really needs to control the conversation. He just needs to avoid mistakes and hope that the country is in the mood for a change.”

There was another scenario, Kondik added — a bleaker one from Romney’s perspective. 

“Romney’s strategy is not as important as the facts on the ground. If unemployment goes down and GDP goes up, Romney can do all the campaigning, and all the counter-programming, he wants. It probably isn’t going to be enough.”

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