Mitt Romney, from the onset of the primaries, has had his eye on the general election. The themes he has chosen (jobs, the debt) and the rhetoric he has employed (avoiding calling President Obama a “socialist,” conceding we need some financial regulation but just not Dodd-Frank) are designed to appeal to the center-right coalition he would need in a face-off with Obama.

This week we saw that Romney is not banking solely on Obama’s handling of the economy, and specifically, unemployment. Yes, he has issued a series of “Obama is not working [fill in the name of the state he’s in]” messages that tell the plight of out-of-work Americans. And yes, he repeats that Obama is clueless about how the private sector works. But he is also introducing a broader theme.

On Tuesday in New Beford, N.H., he talked about two contrasting visions. It was a theme he first rolled out at the Republican Jewish Coalition confab earlier in the month. The core of this message is this:

Four years ago, many Americans trusted candidate Barack Obama when he promised to bring Americans together. But now we’ve learned that President Obama’s idea of bringing us together is not to lift us up but instead to use the invisible boot of government to bring us all down.

I have a vision of a very different America, an America united not by our limits but by our ambitions, our hopes and our shared dreams. . . .

President Obama boasts that he will “fundamentally transform” America. I want to restore America to our founding principles.

I believe that our founding principles are what made America the greatest nation in the world.

Among these core principles is what the founders called the “pursuit of happiness.” We call it opportunity, or the freedom to choose our course in life. That principle is the foundation of a society that is based on ability, not birthright.

In a merit-based society, people achieve their dreams through hard work, education, risk-taking, and even a little luck. An opportunity society produces pioneers and inventors; it inspires its citizens to build and create. As these people exert effort and take risks, they employ and lift others and create prosperity.

Their success does not make others poorer, it makes others better off.

President Obama sees America differently. He believes in an entitlement society.

Once we thought “entitlement” meant that Americans were entitled to the privilege of trying to succeed in the greatest country in the world. Americans fought and died to earn and protect that entitlement. But today the new entitlement battle is over the size of the check you get from Washington.

Somewhere Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) must be smiling. He’s spent a great deal of time in multiple speeches trying to make a very similar point. Romney has taken it and run with it.

It is, in essence, an argument for limited government. As Romney argued: “President Obama’s entitlement society would demand a massive growth of government. To preserve opportunity, we must shrink government, not grow it.”

In framing the general-election race, Romney says: “We can’t begin to answer the question of who should be our next president until we start asking ourselves, ‘Who are we as Americans, and what kind of America do we want for our children?’”

Why is adopting this his core message? It serves multiple purposes. First, it is a hedge against an improved economy. If, by some miracle, unemployment drops to say, 7 percent, he’ll need to talk about more than the high rate of unemployment. Second, it is a message that is in tune with both Tea Partyers and independent voters, who are concerned about the debt and the potential loss of opportunity for future generations. Third, it preempts to some extent Obama’s straw-man argument, namely that Republicans want everyone to “be on his own.” Romney is saying hogwash; we need a safety net and, beyond that, more mobility and opportunity, which is best attained in the (relatively) free market. Fourth, it plays into Romney’s own background and skill set. He’s the Bain guy who helped businesses turn things around. He wasn’t running a charity. He was instead helping to make businesses grow, create wealth and employ more people. And finally, it is a message well suited to the times. All of the fights between Obama and the GOP (Obamacare, the debt ceiling, the continuing resolution) have come down to a single issue: How big a government do we want?

Romney still has to win the nomination, but he’s wise to keep hammering home this message. It’s one that will reassure conservatives and lay the groundwork, if he is the nominee, for his general-election campaign. He’s not going to arrest judges or get rid of Medicare. He’s not going to balance the budget in a couple of years. That may disappoint many right-wing talk show hosts and indignant bloggers, but it might just be a winning message and the successful synthesis of the Tea Party’s limited-government message with a feasible election and governing strategy.