Despite the fact that Mitt Romney still has a snarling beagle in the form of Rick Santorum clenched to his pants leg, he is beginning to look toward the general election.

The timing is right and Romney could experience a brief period in which he has a fresh introduction as a winner and as a possible president around the end of April.

Already, Ann Romney is getting flattering coverage of her story and style. The rest of the family will also get some good profiles. I doubt there is a Billy Carter among the Romneys.

But the most important task ahead is for Romney to reshape his message and his rationale for wanting to be president. The primaries have created issues and distractions that won't be a part of the general election debate.

Romney and company should study Michael Gerson's piece titled "How Romney can overcome his shortcomings" and take it to heart.   I agree with all of Gerson's observations and recommendations, but I would add another two.

First, Romney needs a carefully thought-out appeal to working women and single women. Obama will not achieve the turnout among young voters and African Americans that he did in 2008. If he wins, it will be because he was able to run up the score with women in a low turnout election. Romney is on notice; this is his biggest problem in a close race. Don't accept the media's claim that it is all about contraception. It is more about economic security and the idea, which will be nourished by Obama, that Romney has an antiquated view of the role of women in the workplace and elsewhere in modern society.

Second, Romney must have a bold economic growth agenda. The GOP must avoid claiming there is no improvement in the economy when the data and people's own observations suggest something different. He must avoid being accused of hoping for the worst or talking down the economy. Romney needs to paint a picture of the future that 5 percent growth would create. Talk about what a robust American economic resurgence would do for families and communities rather than argue about whether this week's incremental data release suggests something good or not. Have a message that acknowledges the anemic recovery and let Obama overstate low growth's effects and consequences. President Obama trying to sell that the economy as better than it is is as bad as us saying things are worse than they are. Let's make the Obama campaign explain that weak growth is good and all we should hope for.

I, along with others, will have much more to say about the economic contrast the Republicans need to have with Obama and the Democrats as they try to simply out-promise the Republicans on government handouts. One great thing about running for president is you get a lot of free advice.

In other news, briefly: I read about the General Services Administration Vegas party scandal. Back in the day, I was part of meetings where there was the occasional notion that our plans could be getting close to the line, and someone would say, "If this gets in The Post, we are toast."  So I try to imagine being in the meeting where some eager staff person is telling their bosses that they got the mind-reader, the clown, tchotchkes, and finally, that the really great bicycle-building team exercise was coming together for the big Vegas getaway. And the cost would probably come in at less than a million bucks.  Whew!

Where was the little voice that said, "Hey, this might not be fully understood if it was on the front page of The Post?"  I've been there, walked into doing the wrong thing and then hoped for the best, but this episode is in a category all by itself. It is not over. The clown and the mind-reader will have their time on camera to defend and promote themselves, and Congress will disclose the real cost and likely even worse details. We will learn how the obvious red flags and warnings were ignored or hidden. And this is gift that will keep on giving. It will live on with the late-night comics and probably in ads that contrast this episode with Obama's own words about what an effective steward he will be when it comes to spending taxpayer money.