The next 5 things that will happen in the presidential race

at 01:48 PM ET, 03/27/2012

The Republican presidential primary race has reached — or, at the very least is well on its way to reaching — its conclusion.

But, with every political death comes political birth — circle of life! — and the end of the primary signals the official start of the general election.


In this March 15, 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama speaks in Largo, Md. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)
Here are five things to watch for over the next few weeks as the candidates and the political world transitions from the intrasquad scrimmage to the real thing.

1. The force-out of Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich: In basketball, if someone drives to the baseline, you teach a defender to give him (or her) the slightest nudge in order to push them out of bounds without a foul being called. That’s what former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney and the Republican party establishment will be trying to do to both Santorum and Gingrich in the coming days.

The goal is to get both men out of the race without agitating them or their followers too much. In a perfect world, Santorum and Gingrich not only get out with a minimum of fanfare but also hold some sort of unity event with Romney to make clear that the party is now fully behind him.

Of course, politics rarely exists in a perfect world and both Santorum and Gingrich continue to go great guns against Romney at the moment. If that continues, the slight force-out will turn into something far less subtle. (Think a two-hand push in the small of the back.)

2. A fundraising windfall for Romney: Recent history suggests that once it becomes clear that a contested primary is over — whether officially or symbolically — the nominee-in-waiting is on the receiving end of a huge financial boost.

Take 2008. In June of that year, the month the Democratic presidential primary formally ended, then Illinois Sen. Barack Obama raised $54 million, a stunning sum for a single month.

There is some evidence that just that sort of financial rallying effect is taking place for Romney. With the endorsement of former Florida governor Jeb Bush coupled with a win in Illinois’ primary earlier this month the flow of cash to the former Massachusetts governor should only increase.

While his March fundraising report might not be gangbusters, his April report — by which time the “Romney as inevitable nominee” storyline will be hard-wired into Republicans’ brains — should be a huge one.

3. Democratic assault begins: The Obama reelection campaign has largely limited its attempts to define Romney to press releases, web videos and small, targeted television buys. Those are plays directed at the Democratic base and the media, not the general electorate.

But with Romney now very clearly settled in as the Republican nominee, the effort to introduce him to the general public as a flip-flopping, Etch a Sketch-loving politician is likely to ramp up — in a major way.

It’s not clear whether that negative effort will be led by the Obama campaign, the Democratic National Committee or Priorities USA Action, the super PAC aligned with the White House. Obama’s reelection campaign is in the strongest financial position to begin the assault but may want to try to keep its hands clean.

Regardless of who pays for the ads, the onslaught of negativity directed at defining Romney in an unfavorable light is coming. Soon.

4. American Crossroads steps in: While Romney is by far the best funded candidate in the Republican primary race, he has spent heavily to get to the pole position in the race that he currently occupies. As of the end of February, Romney had spent $66 million in the campaign to date with just over $7 million in the bank.

That means that Romney will need a month (or likely more) to restock his coffers. And that’s where American Crossroads, a conservative super PAC that has pledged to spend $200 million on the 2012 election, comes in. The group ended February with $23.5 million on hand.

American Crossroads is the great equalizer for Republicans — bridging the likely funding gap in the near term and then amplifying the Romney/Republican National Committee message in the longer term. (Crossroads is currently running web-only ads on the Supreme Court deliberations over President Obama’s health care law.)

Expect Crossroads to match Obama’s ad spending dollar for dollar, trying to avoid Romney’s candidacy being killed in the crib ala what happened to former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole (R) in the summer of 1996.

5. A new Romney narrative: The dominant storyline around Romney to date is that he is a somewhat awkward candidate who, despite massive financial and organizational advantages, hasn’t been able to lock down the Republican nomination.

But, as we suggested in our Monday newspaper column, there is some evidence to suggest that Romney is actually underrated as a candidate. When he winds up as the Republican nominee, it’s likely to be that story that takes over — how Romney won the GOP nomination without bowing too much to the conservative base (immigration being an obvious exception) and how he is a stronger-than-expected general election candidate.

Remember that winning has a way of transforming public perception. For a few days or even a few weeks after the nomination is sewn up, the press surrounding the nominee is almost uniformly positive. The candidate is cast as a triumphant victor and, not surprisingly, his poll numbers tend to get a boost.

Romney will benefit from that recasting. It won’t last forever but it will come at a critical time — when many Americans are just getting their first real sense of who the former Massachusetts governor really is.

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