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Welcome to the purgatory campaign

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The presidential race is in a state of political purgatory at the moment — caught between a GOP primary contest that just won’t end and a general election that can’t start until it does.

Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney campaigns at Pancakes Eggcetera Friday, March 16, 2012 in Rosemont, Ill. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

For Republicans, the writing is on the wall: Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney will be the GOP nominee in the fall against President Obama. And yet, neither former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum nor former House Speaker Newt Gingrich seems interested in bowing out and, in so doing, allowing the general election to begin in earnest.

“We are in a transitory phase,” said Republican consultant Alex Castellanos. “The thing about purgatory is that you can go to heaven from there. Or you can remain trapped.”

What the political world is left with is a series of warmed-over storylines — Can Newt make another comeback? Can Santorum unify conservatives? — that have all been litigated to within an inch of their lives a hundred times before and have gone from long-shot to no-shot possibilities.

The candidates, too, seem weary from months (and months) of sprinting to a finish line that keeps moving just a little bit further away. Santorum has grown snappy on the campaign trail — his back and forth with New York Times reporter Jeff Zeleny being a prime example of that tendency — while Gingrich seems to be engaged less in a serious campaign than an extended tour of interesting sites (read: zoos) around the country.

Even Romney seems itchy to end this primary once and for all. Asked about Santorum’s criticism of his position on health care this week, Romney gave the former Pennsylvania senator the political Heisman: “I am not going to worry too much about what Rick is saying these days,” said Romney. “I know that when you fall further and further behind, you get a little more animated.”

The problem for Romney is that, while he is doing what he can to pivot to the general election fight — his blasting of Obama’s hot mike moment being a prime example — he still has to be somewhat mindful of the critiques being lodged by Gingrich and Santorum. And that balancing act is made all the more difficult because neither of Romney’s top rivals — to say nothing of Ron Paul — seem ready to stake their foot off the rhetorical gas pedal just yet.

The danger, of course, is that Romney spends too much time looking at the race that is (mostly) behind him and not enough at the race that is (mostly) ahead of him. That is, he continues to cater to the ideological right — for fear of giving his opponents any chance at a comeback, however unlikely that seems — rather than beginning the courtship of voters occupying the political center.

Fred Davis, a Republican media consultant who made the television ads for Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential bid in 2008, took a different tack — arguing that this purgatory period contains an opportunity for Romney.

“I would use this time as a blessing, to show the ‘real’ Romney to the world,” Davis said. “Away from the fake, see if there’s a guy in there that people can like and believe.”

Santorum super PAC ups ad buy in Wisconsin: The top super PAC supporting Santorum has increased its ad buy in the Wisconsin to $660,000.

The Red, White and Blue Fund’s total in the Badger State stills pales in comparison to the investment made by Romney’s top super PAC, Restore Our Future, which has spent about $2.3 million in the state.

Despite the continuing race, the gulf between ad spending on Santorum’s behalf has yet to approach the money being spent on Romney and basically any major contest, and the Pennsylvania senator has struggled mightily because of it.

DGA raised $8 million in first quarter: The Democratic Governors Association raised $8 million in the first three months of 2012, the group will announce Friday.

The haul for the quarter, which ends Saturday, exceeds what the DGA pulled in for the same period four years ago — the last year with the same governor’s races on the map as this year’s election — and about matches the group’s haul in the first quarter of 2010, when there were many more governor’s races at stake.

The Republican Governors Association has not released its numbers for the first quarter, which aren’t due until April 15. But the RGA has consistently outraised the DGA about two-to-one.

The top governor’s races this year include the recall of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) and open-seat races in North Carolina, Montana, New Hampshire and Washington state.

Fixbits:

Romney’s super PAC has spent almost $40 million against Santorum and Gingrich.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has offered some supportive words for Romney in recent days, says Romney is “instinctively not necessarily a political conservative; he’s instinctively a problem solver.”

The Republican National Committee says it has fully funded its $21 million presidential trust — the limited money it can spend in coordination with whoever its nominee will be.

Gingrich trails Ron Paul in the most recent Gallup poll.

Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R) for vice president?

North Dakota Democratic Senate candidate Heidi Heitkamp is up with her first ad — a $37,000 ad buy.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) is appealing a local election board’s ruling that he is ineligible to vote in his home county.

The most high-profile vote against the Ryan budget again comes from Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.) who is running for Senate. Rep. Connie Mack (R-Fla.), who is also running for Senate, did not vote.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and his opponent, state Treasurer Josh Mandel (R), discuss setting ground rules for each other’s campaign video trackers.

Former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R) will travel to North Carolina on April 30 to campaign for former Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory (R) in the state’s open governor’s race. McCrory has also welcomed Govs. Bobby Jindal (La.), Chris Christie (N.J.) and Nikki Haley (S.C.).

Another Crowley runs for Congress in New York City. It’s Joe’s cousin, New York City Councilwoman Elizabeth Crowley (D).

California congressional candidate Jose Hernandez (D) defeats a GOP attempt to prevent him from identifying himself as an “astronaut” on the ballot. And he released this awesome web video in the process.

Must-reads:

On health care, is the GOP ready for victory?” — Dan Balz, Washington Post

Santorum complains about life on campaign trail as an underdog presidential candidate” — AP

Romney’s Hawkish Stands Drawing Attention” — Neil King Jr., Wall Street Journal

Super PACs, donors turn sights on judicial branch” — Brady Dennis, Washington Post

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