Liberals should have understood that, like an Etch A Sketch (pardon the expression), the general election resets the race. That understanding would have cushioned the blow when they saw a raft of polls suggesting a close race, Mitt Romney’s favorability numbers rebounding and conservatives rallying to him.

Perhaps the left imagined that unfavorables driven higher by the rat-tat-tat of a primary fight, ongoing attack ads aimed at him and the series of contentious debates were permanently fixed, as if the entire country had once and for all made up its mind about Romney.

CNN reports:

Forty-four percent of people questioned in the survey say they have a favorable view of the former Massachusetts governor, up 10 points from February, during some of the most heated moments of the GOP primaries and caucuses. Forty-three percent say they have an unfavorable opinion of Romney, down 11 points from February. Thirteen percent are unsure.

The Post-ABC News poll shows that Romney’s base has come around. (“Fully 69 percent of Republicans — including 80 percent of conservative Republicans — now hold favorable views of the former Massachusetts governor, both career highs.”) The Pew poll tells us, “As the GOP primary winds down, the party base is getting behind Mitt Romney. Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Republican and Republican-leaning voters now say that the party will unite solidly behind Romney as the nominee, up from 57% in February. This matches the 64% who said the party would unite behind McCain at a comparable point four years ago.” The Gallup poll shows each candidate with about 90 percent of his party’s base behind him. (I’ll avoid paying too much attention to the “all registered voters” numbers, which will wax and wane as the campaign goes on.)

The Democrats have been living in a world of false assumptions — that Romney was permanently damaged, conservatives would forever stay away and he lacked an effective argument on the economy. (According to Pew, he leads Obama narrowly on taxes and jobs, and by a large margin on the budget deficit.)

None of this, nor the top-line numbers, mean this is where the race will always be. But in fact the general election does represent a new phase in the contest and Romney, much like every other Republican in recent years, will get a chance to make his case to a much wider audience. He will need a center-right coalition to win, picking off disillusioned independents who didn’t get what they expected from Obama. He’s gone a long way to corralling the right. He’s got to keep them on board and reach out to swing voters, who right now don’t seem all that enamored of the president. Democrats talked themselves into overconfidence, scoffing at the idea that Romney could be competitive. That’s what happens when you take your own side’s spin too seriously.