While there are still plenty of states left to vote in the Republican presidential race and Rick Santorum is thinking as much about 2016 as 2012, the rest of the country is beginning to focus this morning on the only real matchup that is left this year: Mitt Romney versus Barack Obama. Romney’s three primary wins last night solidified his status as the inevitable GOP nominee, and President Obama acknowledged that fact with a blistering direct attack on the Republican frontrunner that laid out the outlines of his campaign strategy. With Obama and the Democratic campaign machine beginning to focus all of their attention on Romney, that will start to diminish interest in what’s left of the GOP race.
But though Romney may not mention Rick Santorum’s name again until the day the latter concedes the nomination to him, he’s going to need to take the upcoming Pennsylvania primary seriously. The temptation for Romney is to view it as merely the chance to administer the coup de grace to Santorum’s challenge. But it’s actually more serious than that.
It’s true that Santorum has virtually no chance to win the nomination even if he wins his home state on April 24. But as Santorum made clear in his speech last night, a win in his home state — even if it is narrow and even if he doesn’t actually win a majority of the delegates at stake there — will be used as a launching point for continuing an insurgency whose aim will be more to tear down Romney than to actually supplant him as the nominee. Santorum seems to be thinking about picking up the pieces of the party in the event Romney loses in the fall. That means both men know that victory in Pennsylvania is an imperative.
President Obama and his various surrogates are already starting to execute a campaign strategy of mockery aimed at Romney whose purpose is to portray him as too rich, weird, square and out of touch to be president. As the president indicated in his speech to newspaper editors yesterday, he sees no reason why the press should attempt to report both sides of the debate on the budget or taxes because he believes he has a monopoly on truth and justice.
The commencement of a blizzard of Democratic invective against Romney and the Republicans makes it imperative that the GOP close ranks and start to return fire on the incumbent. But if Santorum is able to use a win in Pennsylvania to fuel continuing attacks on Romney throughout the spring and even the summer, he will be doing Obama an enormous favor.
That means the next three weeks are likely to be the nastiest yet in what has been a long, nasty Republican race. Romney knows he must squelch Santorum now while he has a chance to humiliate him at home or else face a difficult couple of months that will undermine his chances of victory in the fall. If the gloves weren’t already off between these two, they certainly will be now.