The Republican presidential contest seems to have come down to a two-man race, and we’re not talking about Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum.
No, Romney’s chances of winning his party’s nomination increase daily, if opinion polls are to be believed and if high-level endorsements mean anything. Except for saying he understands his closest GOP rival’s frustration in falling farther behind, Romney now is all but ignoring Santorum. So if there’s a two-man race, it’s between Romney and President Obama.
"It's pretty obvious this nomination is essentially over," GOP Senate leader Mitch McConnell told CNBC this week, about the time Romney was winning endorsements from former president George H. W. Bush, and House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, following the endorsements of former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio.
In his speech at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., Friday, the former Massachusetts governor made clear who he now sees as his main competitor for the White House.
"Barack Obama and I have fundamentally different visions for America," Romney said as he stumped for Tuesday’s winner-take-all primary in Wisconsin. "He spent the last three or four years laying the foundation for a new government-centered society. I will spend the next four years rebuilding the foundation of our opportunity society, led by free people and their free enterprises."
In essence, Romney may not be doing the full Etch-A-Sketch, but he is reframing his campaign toward November’s general election.
In his speech Friday, Romney focused on the economy, which he sees as his strong suit.
"President Obama did not cause the recession but he most certainly failed to lead the recovery,” Romney said, pointing to lost jobs, poverty rates, home foreclosures, and Obamacare, which he said “discouraged small businesses and health companies from hiring new workers.”
"For the first time since World War II, our national debt is greater in size than our entire United States economy," Romney said.
In response, Obama reelection campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said in a statement, "Whether he is willfully ignoring the facts or rooting for failure, Mitt Romney's speech overlooked key facts about the economic progress we've made under President Obama's leadership.”
"From 24 straight months of private-sector job creation to a thriving automobile industry that is creating hundreds of thousands of jobs to lower taxes for every working family, the president's decisive actions over the past three years have begun to pay off,” Smith said.
So far, Obama himself has not responded directly to charges or taunts from Romney. But there’s no doubt he’s aiming at the likely GOP nominee – who famously said he enjoyed firing people – when he seeks to frame the Republican Party as out of touch with working Americans.
"Their philosophy is simple: you're on your own," Obama said at a campaign fund-raiser in Vermont Friday. "You're on your own if you're out of work, can't find a job. Tough luck you're on your own. You don't have health care: That's your problem. You're on your own. If you're born into poverty, lift yourself up with your own bootstraps, even if you don't have boots. You're on your own. They believe that's how America is advanced," he said.
"That's the cramped narrow conception they have of liberty, and they are wrong," Obama said.
Obama and his campaign aren't letting voters forget about Romney's wealth. The campaign says it wants to see many years of Romney tax returns, and in his Saturday radio address, Obama again called for the "Buffet Rule" under which super-wealthy individuals – like Romney – would pay a higher income tax rate.
Romney is cruising into the Wisconsin Primary with looks like a clear margin of support among likely GOP voters.
The Real Clear Politics average of most recent polls puts Romney ahead by a fraction under 10 points there.
Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight political blog for the New York Times, says, “Mitt Romney now has a fairly certain path to the Republican nomination.” Silver gives Romney an 88 percent chance of winning in Wisconsin.
(Romney also leads the polling in Maryland and Washington, DC, which are holding winner-take-all primaries next Tuesday as well.)
The Associated Press delegate count shows Romney with 568 delegates to Santorum's 273, with Newt Gingrich at 135 and Ron Paul at 50. It takes 1,144 delegates to win the nomination.
If he widens his lead in next Tuesday’s contests, as expected, Romney then moves on to even friendlier territory in the Northeast, where moderate Republicanism is more the norm.