Rick Santorum’s exit from the GOP race Tuesday effectively ended the Republican presidential primary and kicked off the general election between Mitt Romney and President Obama.
As the race kicks off, here’s each candidate’s Day One checklist.
The Romney Checklist
• Don’t Blow It
Now that the pitfalls of GOP primary are for the most part behind him, Romney has to be careful not to do what he often does — fail to stick the landing. Time after time, Romney and his campaign steps on good news with a gaffe (His campaign adviser’s infamous “Etch A Sketch” line came just in time to erase all the praise for Romney’s Illinois victory speech, for example). With one fewer Republican candidate around, the press will be more focused on Romney than ever. He’s got to be careful not to let the natural boost from Santorum’s exit get crushed under the weight of another gaffe.
• It’s Ladies Night — For Many, Many Nights
Romney needs to shore up his polling gap with women — and fast. Romney appears to be keenly aware of this: His first event following Santorum’s announcement Tuesday came in front of an audience of mostly women, as Romney talked about jobs for women and shouted out former Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell, who was sitting in the audience.
Earlier Tuesday, Romney’s campaign turned on its head a Democratic attack line, accusing President Obama of waging the “real war on women” on a conference call, signaling Team Romney is worried about the gender polling gap and is trying to close it by attacking the president.
One advocate for Republican women says Romney can win women back — by refusing to single them out.
“Women aren’t a different species that we have to reach out in a special way or say certain things,” Rae Lynne Chornenky, president of the National Federation of Republican Women, a group that represents GOP women’s clubs across the country, told TPM. “They’re the same as any other voter.”
Romney’s already seizing on the concept, focusing his outreach to women on what he says are universal issues that affect both sexes. Obama, on the other hand, is reaching out to women with specific policy plans, like increasing access to contraception coverage (which Romney opposes) and focusing on the pay gap.
• Repairing A Burned Bridge
Romney may be able to blame others for his polling problems with women and independents. Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum pushed him to the right on many social issues, leaving him less palatable to significant portions of the electorate. Not so when it comes to his deficit with Latinos. Romney positioned himself as the severe conservative on immigration early on and stuck with it throughout the primary.
Now he’s lagging Obama badly with the Latino vote. There appear to be two recovery options: suppressing the Latino vote with negative attacks on Obama in hopes of discouraging them from turning out for Obama, and selecting a Latino running mate. The likelihood of the second option appears to be fading, so for now it looks like Romney’s best bet is to dissuade Latinos from supporting the president.
If the primaries exposed one thing, it’s that large swaths of the GOP base aren’t excited by Romney. Underfunded candidates presumed to be long-shots at the beginning of the race, like Michele Bachmann, Herman Cain, Gingrich and Santorum, were all able to leapfrog Romney in national polls — and Santorum and Gingrich even beat him in a number of contests — despite Romney’s name ID and overwhelming campaign war chest. The lack of GOP enthusiasm for their nominee and the nominating process itself is well-documented. But observers say this might be easier than it seems — Republicans, for all their differences, are united in their disdain for Obama, and Romney can probably rely on their desire to oust him to motivate the base to turn out at the polls.
“Santorum’s campaign forced Romney to spend tens of millions, much of it negative with little residual benefit, but it also forced them to raise their game and learn how to handle the attacks that Obama would have and will make this fall, with greater lethality and more money behind them,” said unaligned GOP consultant Matt Mackowiak. “The party will now rapidly coalesce around Romney and the focus on the general election will begin, uninterrupted.”
The Obama Checklist
• Define Romney Early
The start of the general election means Romney gets a second chance to introduce himself to the American people, this time unencumbered by a tough contest on the right.
But the Obama campaign is hoping to make sure the worst version of Romney to emerge out of the primaries, the one voters worry is an uber-rich guy out to make other rich guys richer, is the one that sticks. Virtually everything they’ve thrown at him this week reinforces that idea, starting with a week-long push by President Obama in support of the Buffett Rule, which happens to require ultra-wealthy investors like Romney to pay higher taxes, and against Republican plans — like Romney’s — to cut income tax rates for the rich. And he’s framing it in the most punishing way possible for Romney.
“They proposed a budget that showers the wealthiest Americans with even more tax cuts, and then pays for these tax cuts by gutting investments in education and medical research and clean energy, in health care,” Obama told a crowd Tuesday, attributing that position to “some people who are running for a certain office right now, who shall not be named.”
Meanwhile, Obama surrogates ripped Romney this week for paying a 13.9 percent tax rate, called him the “beneficiary of a broken tax system,” and bashing him for “shopping for car elevators.”
Obama’s top pollster, Joel Benenson, identified Romney’s various wealth-related gaffes as his “biggest vulnerability” in a briefing with reporters last month, making clear that the sudden focus on his finances is no coincidence.
• Run The GOP Primary Race On Continuous Loop
Republican pundits like to comfort themselves after a long and acrimonious primary by likening the whole thing to the 2008 Obama/Clinton showdown that ended with a Democratic blowout in the general election. But the poll numbers show that comparison’s a sham: Romney has suffered major damage to his favorability numbers and the Republican brand is as weak as ever.
Romney spokesman Eric Fehrnstrom suggested the general election have an Etch-a-Sketch-like effect and reset the race. Team Obama is looking to make sure that no one forgets the primary’s greatest hits. In his first major general election speech last week, Obama name-checked an array of golden oldies from the primary, from Gingrich’s denunciation of the House GOP budget Romney supports as “right-wing social engineering” to the early debate where the whole Republican field refused to consider any kind of compromise on the deficit, no matter how stacked in their favor. And Democrats are ready to roll with a host of clips of Romney tossing red meat rhetoric on issues like immigration the second they see him trying to tack to the center.
“We are going to have video archive that proves these Republicans are talking out of both sides of their mouth,” Rodell Mollineau, head of American Bridge, told TPM last week.
• Work That Glass Jaw
Romney’s low point in the Republican primary was probably when he was booed in a South Carolina debate for refusing to release his tax returns. After being blown out in the state shortly afterward, he released his most recent return, and his GOP rivals mercifully backed off the issue for the rest of the race.
The Obama campaign hasn’t forgotten just how uncomfortable the topic made Romney. Looking to keep him off balance for his big general election roll-out, Democrats are reviving the issue with an all-out push this week to demand Romney release at least a dozen previous returns. They’re requesting as many as 23 years’ worth of tax returns, and want Romney to provide more information about his use of a Swiss Bank account and Cayman Islands investment fund.
The Obama campaign notes they’ve released 12 years of returns and Romney’s own father released a similar number, and are hoping hoping that by working the press, interviewers will bombard Romney with tough questions during his victory tour.
“Our message to Mitt is simple: If you don’t have anything to hide, release your taxes just like every other candidate for president does,” campaign manager Jim Messina told reporters on Monday.