Rick Santorums exit from the White House race Tuesday marked a symbolic starter shot for the general election campaign, allowing all-but-certain Republican nominee Mitt Romney to turn his full attention to President Barack Obama.
Several analysts and experts told AFP it was game on in what is shaping up as a monumental battle between a challenger with the best ground game in the Republican field and the deep-pocketed, well-organized machinery of a fiery incumbent seeking another four years in the White House.
There are still nominating contests in 19 states including delegate-rich New York, Pennsylvania, Texas and California, and two other candidates stubbornly refuse to go away. But experts agree that the Republican race has run its course, with a Romney nomination a foregone conclusion.
“Romney can focus on uniting the Republican Party and running against Obama now,” said Alan Abramowitz, professor of political science at Emory University.
Steffen Schmidt of Iowa State University agrees that Santorum’s departure “clears the field for Mitt Romney. At this point nothing else matters.”
While he no longer needs to campaign for the Republican nomination, Romney cannot rest on his laurels.
“He does need to stay active, if only to keep President Obama from completely dominating the political news,” said professor John Pitney of Claremont McKenna College.
“In 1996, Bob Dole stopped campaigning after he secured the nomination, and President (Bill) Clinton was able to increase his advantage in the polls. Romney does not want to face such a problem.”
That means working to convince core Republicans like evangelical Christians ̶ Santorum’s traditional base, many of whom are skeptical of Romney ̶ as well more moderate Republicans and independent voters that Romney is their man.
Schmidt said the various party factions will coalesce come November. “Their target is defeating Obama, and all the crankiness will more or less vanish.”
Meanwhile Romney must forge ahead with drilling into the president’s policies, which Romney argues have failed to speed up the recovery from the worst recession in decades.
He did that straight away Tuesday. Shortly after Santorum’s capitulation, Romney took to the stump, and while he applauded his Republican rival for making “an important contribution to the political process,” he swiftly pivoted to Obama.
The president’s “policies have by and large been devastating to small business,” Romney told supporters in Wilmington, Delaware.
The White House, which has essentially treated Romney as the de facto Republican nominee for several months, appeared ready for the head-to-head matchup.
“It’s no surprise that Mitt Romney finally was able to grind down his opponents under an avalanche of negative ads,” Obama reelection campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement.
“But neither he nor his special interest allies will be able to buy the presidency with their negative attacks. The more the American people see of Mitt Romney, the less they like him and the less they trust him.”
Santorum bowed out before the key primary in his home state of Pennsylvania, pledging to do what he can to help defeat the Democratic incumbent in November.
The party leadership, which has lined up behind Romney, sounded relieved, with Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus saying it was “commendable” for Santorum to drop out.
Barring any nasty fight on the floor of the Republican National Convention in August, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and congressman Ron Paul of Texas, who each trail well behind Romney and Santorum, are out of the picture.
“All of the media talk now will be about the general election, and Santorum, Gingrich and Paul will be completely invisible,” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow on governance studies at the Brookings Institution.
He said Romney’s nominations victory now means “he doesn’t have to spend millions of dollars” in negative campaign ads, which studies show had driven up Romney's own negative numbers.
Nor does Romney have to “worry about any embarrassing finishes” in the primaries, including a string of May races in states seen as more favorable to Santorum, such as Kentucky, North Carolina and Texas.
“It makes it easier to turn to the general election campaign,” Mann added.
And that, many experts agree, will be about the economy and jobs, two issues in which polls show Romney in a competitive matchup with Obama.