Reality smacked US Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney in the face twice in a 24-hour span.
US President Barack Obama used the power of the presidency to ring the general election’s opening bell, declaring this week in no uncertain terms that he and his mammoth organization are ready to take on Romney — whether the presumptive Republican nominee is ready or not.
Despite what he may say, Romney is not.
The former Massachusetts governor, who won three more primaries on Tuesday and is on track to claim his party’s presidential nomination in June, if not before, is facing a challenge of historic proportions. Just one Republican — former US president Ronald Reagan — has defeated a Democratic incumbent president in the past century, and Romney faces an incumbent with five times more staff, 10 times more money and the world’s greatest bully pulpit.
Using that platform on Tuesday, Obama criticized Romney by name, telling news executives at the annual meeting of The Associated Press that his likely general election opponent supported a “radical” Republican budget plan he characterized as “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” He accused Republican leaders of becoming so extreme that even Reagan, one of the party’s most cherished heroes, would not win a Republican primary today.
The president’s critique came just one day after his campaign launched a TV ad in six general election battleground states that suggested that Romney stood with “Big Oil.” It all comes amid a Democratic effort to paint Romney as part of a Republican Party that Obama’s party is casting as too conservative for the country.
Romney hit back after he won primaries in Wisconsin, Washington and Maryland on Tuesday, telling cheering supporters in Milwaukee that the president has become “a little out of touch” after “years of flying around on Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers telling you that you’re great and you’re doing a great job.”
“You know, out-of-touch liberals like Barack Obama say they want a strong economy, but in everything they do, they show they don’t like business very much,” Romney said.
With that, the contours of the general election were set — and the attack lines unveiled.
Each candidate cast the other as too extreme for the center of the country — speaking directly to the independents who play a critical role in general elections because they determine who wins close races. The number of independent voters in the US has swelled. That means they are a top target for both candidates in what Republican and Democratic operatives alike anticipate will be a close election for reasons that include the country’s increasingly polarized nature.
As the incumbent, Obama has a built-in advantage and a huge head start. He has spent months wooing the center of the electorate even as he worked to fire up his Democratic base.
Romney has a ton of ground to make up and, even though he has been eager to shift his campaign to focus on fundraising, building and advertising for the general election, he does not have the luxury of doing that in earnest just yet.
His stubborn Republican opponents, inspired by anti-Romney skepticism from the right flank of the party, are not letting him. And that means Romney will continue — for a while at least — to be at least marginally distracted by an intraparty contest whose outcome has never really been in question.