The Washington Post

With Rick Santorum out, Mitt Romney shifts focus to Obama

Rick Santorum’s decision to suspend his presidential campaign Tuesday effectively ended the race for the Republican nomination, giving likely nominee Mitt Romney the opportunity to repair the damage he sustained in the primary contests, rally reluctant conservatives behind his candidacy and shift his focus to President Obama.

The general-election contest already was taking shape, with the Obama and Romney campaigns engaging each other more directly in the past few weeks. That will accelerate rapidly, with Americans now looking at a probable seven-month campaign between two candidates who have strikingly different visions about where to take the country.

Romney has long attempted to paint Obama as a failed president whose policies have slowed the economic recovery while enlarging the government and building up deficits and debt. Obama, in turn, has criticized Romney as a proponent of the policies that drove the nation into the deep recession and as a politician who would protect the wealthiest at the expense of the middle class.

“For Mitt Romney, this race has always been about defeating President Obama, and getting Americans back to work,” Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in a statement. “From the time that Mitt Romney announced his candidacy, he has run his campaign with the message that President Obama has failed to fix the economy.”

Obama campaign manager Jim Messina quickly fired back at Romney, saying: “While calling himself the ‘ideal candidate’ for the tea party, he has promised to return to the same policies that created the economic crisis and have alienated women, middle-class families and Hispanic Americans.”

Even before Santorum’s announcement in Gettysburg, Pa., most of the suspense had been drained from the Republican nomination battle — although not before an improbable run by the former senator from Pennsylvania that resuscitated his political career. Still, his departure spares Romney from a potentially costly and ugly primary campaign in Santorum’s home state as well as the possibility of embarrassing defeats in other primaries.

Romney remains well short of the 1,144 delegates required to secure the party’s nomination, and former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) are still competing. Gingrich vowed anew on Tuesday to remain in the race to give conservatives “a real choice,” and he appealed to Santorum’s supporters to give him a fresh look. But neither the Romney campaign nor most Republicans regard Gingrich or Paul as serious obstacles to the former Massachusetts governor’s efforts to wrap up the nomination quickly.

Romney advisers would say that, despite Santorum’s suspension, their top priority is to win the remaining primaries and accumulate delegates. In reality, they consider the nomination fight over. Other priorities are more urgent, given the problems Romney has had throughout the primary battle and the challenges he would face in a fall campaign against the president.

The former governor was forced to the right during the bruising primary fight, leaving him weakened for the general-election campaign among some key demographic groups. He is running far behind Obama among female voters, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. He also faces potentially major problems among Hispanics because of his positions on immigration and the harsh language he used to describe them during the GOP debates.

Romney will now devote most of his energy to drawing contrasts with Obama, free of some of the dissonance generated during the intraparty warfare of the primary race. As he does that, his advisers say, voters will begin to see him in a fresh light and gain a clearer understanding of the choice they have in the general election.

Although most of his attention will be on the president, Romney cannot entirely ignore his right flank. Republicans vow that they will arrive at their national convention in Tampa in August as a united party, and they are probably correct, given the antipathy toward the president among the most conservative.

Romney has won endorsements both from those in the GOP establishment and from some elected officials with connections to the tea party movement. His campaign and some party leaders will press for more.

But unity depends in part on Romney’s success at winning over those conservatives — many of them evangelical Christians — who have supported Santorum over the past two months as he became the principal challenger to the front-runner and who have seemed most resistant to a former governor from liberal Massachusetts who also happens to be a Mormon.

The divide within the party has been stark. Romney has not won a primary contest in a state where evangelical Christians made up more than half the GOP electorate — nor has he lost one in a state where evangelicals made up less than half the electorate. Optimistic Republican strategists say that divide will close quickly as the nomination contest fades and the general-election campaign takes shape.

“With only a few exceptions, evangelicals were not opposed to Romney, they just preferred another candidate as their first choice,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “They will now rally around Romney, just as the liberals who were upset that Obama followed Bush’s anti-terrorism policies will rally around Obama.”

The former governor needs those voters to be as energized as possible to ensure that they don’t stay home in November. His choice of a vice-presidential running mate, his campaign message and his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, assuming he is the nominee, would be critical to winning them to his side.

But there is no unanimity about how Romney should proceed now that Santorum is out. To the end of his campaign, Santorum continued to attack Romney as not a real conservative. How lasting that damage may be among conservatives will now be tested.

“Romney has to build bridges to evangelical voters, who he will need to turn out in large numbers in November,” said Ralph Reed, who leads the Faith and Freedom Coalition. Reed added: “I think Romney understands this and will take whatever steps are necessary to energize social conservative voters. Evangelicals will turn out to vote against Obama. Now it’s important that they are enthusiastic about voting for the Republican nominee.”

Tony Perkins, who heads the Family Research Council and who backed Santorum’s candidacy, issued a statement challenging Romney to demonstrate his commitment to the issues most important to religious conservatives. “If the Republican establishment hopes to generate this same voter intensity in the fall elections,” he said, “Santorum voters must see it demonstrate a genuine and solid commitment to the core values issues.”

But Alex Castellanos, a Republican strategist, warned against a strategy aimed specifically at wooing evangelicals. “The worst thing Mitt could do now is turn inward and worry about consolidating evangelicals and the party,” he said. “He needs to be a general, face forward toward the enemy and lead the troops into battle against the president of European-style government, Barack Obama. That will get the army marching in step.”

Romney spokesman Eric Fehrn­strom created an uproar recently when he said the start of the general-election campaign would be an Etch a Sketch moment, interpreted as meaning that Romney would try to wipe clean the slate from the primary campaign and present himself as a moderate.

Romney quickly vowed that he would run against Obama as a conservative. On Tuesday, a Romney adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to be candid, put it this way: “Voters will now look at Mitt differently and through a different prism. We can use this new beginning as an opportunity to reintroduce the campaign and the candidate.”

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Democrats debated Thursday night. Get caught up on the race.
The Post's Chris Cillizza on the Democratic debate...
On Clinton: She poked a series of holes in Sanders's health-care proposal and broadly cast him as someone who talks a big game but simply can't hope to achieve his goals.

On Sanders: If the challenge was to show that he could be a candidate for people other than those who already love him, he didn't make much progress toward that goal. But he did come across as more well-versed on foreign policy than in debates past.
The PBS debate in 3 minutes
Quoted
We are in vigorous agreement here.
Hillary Clinton, during the PBS Democratic debate, a night in which she and Sanders shared many of the same positions on issues
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the polls as he faces rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz heading into the S.C. GOP primary on Feb. 20.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
Fact Checker
Trump’s claim that his border wall would cost $8 billion
The billionaire's claim is highly dubious. Based on the costs of the Israeli security barrier (which is mostly fence) and the cost of the relatively simple fence already along the U.S.-Mexico border, an $8 billion price tag is simply not credible.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read

politics

Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.