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ThePlumLIneGS whorunsgov plumline
Posted at 02:58 PM ET, 04/10/2012

Santorum drops out. Romney’s challenge is just beginning.

It’s over. Rick Santorum suspended his campaign today, making Mitt Romney the more-official-than-not 2012 Republican nominee for President of the United States.

It’s a milestone of sorts, to be sure. However, the truth is that this nomination was won long ago, certainly in the Florida primary if not before.

How does this affect Mitt Romney going forward? The truth is that when it comes to the general election, the central question for Romney remains unanswered.

Surely, Romney is happy about not having to seriously contest the remaining two months of primaries. I would expect his approval ratings among Republicans to solidify relatively quickly, which should help a bit in horse race polling against Barack Obama. On the other hand, Romney won’t be able to constantly demonstrate to swing voters that he’s the moderate Republican in the GOP nomination process, something that presumably was helped by Santorum and Newt Gingrich constantly calling him a moderate.

Despite that, however, the real constraint on Romney will remain, now that he’s pivoting to the general election : The threat that conservative party actors could walk out on him, or less dramatically just sit on their hands, unless he continues to toe the right wing line on every litmus test issue. And there are plenty of those. Already, Romney has been forced to take potentially unpopular positions by embracing the House Republican budget and Paul Ryan’s Medicare plan, by opposing popular tax increases on wealthy Americans, and by taking a hard line on immigration and cultural issues.

The truth is that Santorum and the nomination process only functioned, from Florida on, as a mechanism for forcing Romney to hew to Republican orthodoxy. That mechanism will be replaced, now, by more direct action and pressure on him by conservative party actors. Those actors will certainly ensure that Romney picks a trusted conservative as a running mate, and will police everything he says on every issue.

So on the one hand, Mitt Romney is now free from needing to worry about delegate counts, and free from having to schedule his ads and appearances based on the calendar of primaries and caucuses. But the real challenge facing Romney — whether conservatives will force him so far from the mainstream that it will cost him in November — will now get a serious test in the arena where it counts. 

By  |  02:58 PM ET, 04/10/2012

 
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