MENDENHALL, Pa. (AP) — The 2012 presidential general election has begun. It won't be pretty.
Tuesday marked Day One, in essence, of the contest between the two virtually certain nominees, Republican Mitt Romney and Democratic President Barack Obama. Rick Santorum's departure removed the last meaningful bump from Romney's path to the GOP nomination. Romney and Obama wasted no time in portraying the voters' choice in dire, sometimes starkly personal terms.
"The campaign started yesterday, the general election campaign," Romney said Wednesday on Fox News when pressed on how he would counter continued Democratic attacks that he is an out-of-touch rich guy. "It's a little early in the process."
With Obama saddled with a still-ailing economy and a divisive health care law, and Romney riding a wave of blistering TV ads, the fall election is unlikely to dwell on "hope," ''change" and other uplifting themes from four years ago. Much of the nation's ire then was aimed at departing President George W. Bush, and Obama had no extensive record to defend.
The landscape is much different now. Voters face nearly seven months of hard-hitting jabs and counterpunches between the two parties' standard-bearers.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor making his second presidential bid, now has to unify his party, build out a general election campaign and start answering big questions like who he will choose as a running mate. He insisted Wednesday that conservatives will unite behind him and said he believes Santorum will campaign with him against Obama. He also suggested he is considering one of his formal rivals for the presidential ticket.
"There's a large number of people in the Republican party who are extraordinary leaders, including some of those who have run in this last contest with me, and so we'll go through that list and decide who could potentially become a president if that were necessary," he told Fox News.
The presumptive nominee attacked Obama with gusto Tuesday in his two public events that followed Santorum's surprising announcement.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania, where an April 24 GOP primary is suddenly less important than its likely role as a battleground state this fall, Romney portrayed Obama as a weak leader who apologizes for America's greatness and prefers European-style socialism over robust free enterprise. Obama's allies call such claims nonsense.
"The right course for America is not to divide America," Romney told a GOP dinner gathering in Mendenhall, near Philadelphia. "That's what he's doing," he said of Obama. "His campaign is all about finding Americans to blame and attack, and find someone to tax more, someone who isn't giving, isn't paying their fair share."
He said Obama prefers "a government-centered society."
Obama, campaigning in Florida, said the choice in November will be as stark as in the 1964 contest between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, which resulted in one of the biggest Democratic landslides ever. That election included dramatic and controversial moments, such as Goldwater's defense of "extremism in the defense of liberty" and a devastating TV ad suggesting a Goldwater presidency would lead to nuclear war.
Obama didn't mention Romney by name. His top aides have shown less restraint, however.
The Obama campaign posted a YouTube video on Wednesday, the day after Santorum's withdrawal, noting that "as Republicans settle on a nominee," there are things voters should remember about the Romney campaign.
The presentation proceeds with video clips of a slew of Romney statements, including his pledge to see the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortions overturned, his statement that he'd rather see Detroit go bankrupt before backing a government bailout, his assertion that "corporations are people, my friend," and his declaration that he was an "extremely serious conservative" governor of Massachusetts.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement after Santorum's withdrawal: "It's no surprise that Mitt Romney finally was able to grind down his opponents under an avalanche of negative ads. 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."
Other Obama campaign officials have mocked Romney's wealth and called him out of touch with average Americans.
Romney and his allies, including a potent super political action committee, have proved their ability to raise millions of dollars to air brutally effective attack ads, which crippled Santorum and Newt Gingrich in the GOP primary contests. Obama will raise many millions, too, and few doubt that he will hit Romney hard.
The Republican super PAC Crossroads GPS is already on the air attacking Obama in six critical swing states. The group is spending $1.7 million to attack the president's energy record for a week in Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia.
On Tuesday, Romney made clear that he will go after Obama's character as well as his record. In speeches in Mendenhall and Wilmington, Del., Romney said Obama isn't merely inept at economic policy, he actively dislikes business.
Obama "is clearly trying to hide from us what he intends to do," Romney said in Wilmington. "He's going to hide. And it's my job to seek."
Romney made similar remarks last month. Now, with Santorum off the stage and Gingrich and Ron Paul hardly a factor, there are no intra-party distractions to dilute such comments. Romney and Obama are fully engaged, one on one, at a much earlier stage than in 2008, when Obama had to parry Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton throughout the summer before fully turning to Republican John McCain.
Even then, Bush's unpopularity helped fuel Obama's campaign and deflected some of the anti-GOP sentiment away from the actual nominee.
This time, the incumbent president is on the ballot, with unemployment above 8 percent. The tea party, which didn't exist in 2008, is a potent and unpredictable force.
And Romney suddenly is free of meaningful primary worries. That leaves him able to focus the full force of his fundraising and campaigning skills against Obama.
Associated Press writer Kasie Hunt in Washington contributed to this report.
Copyright 2013 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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thomas-norris | April 15 2012 7:13pm
What I dislike about any political race is the mud slinging that occurs. Do we vote for the best mud slinger or do we vote for the candidate that has the best plan to solve the nation's woes. The issue is getting the facts straight. President Obama is blamed for an economic situation the was in pace 1 1/2 before he even took office, so it obvious who's administration the blame belongs to, but that is water under the bridge or over the dam, whatever. I can honestly say the most honest run for office that I have ever seen in my 60 some years was the recent run by Rick Snyder for Governor of Michigan. He refused to be goated into a mud slinging contest and addressed the problems providing solutions to the issues. I vote for the individual and not the party. Governor Snyder is doing what he stated he would do, maybe it's because he is not political, but business oriented. Kudos to him.
I find the behavior of the republican hopefuls less than desirable, starting with their petty bickering during the so-called debates. there were none that acknowledged any responsibility for the current issues, but pointed the finger at the president and pointed the finger at each other. Good god, I thought we had responsible adults trying to become leader of the free world, not a bunch of kids in suits. the question I have now is Romney the republican nominee or is this presumptuous on his part? This morning on Meet the Press the discussion was initially oriented toward the comment made about Romney's wife. the comment itself to me was mis spoken and should have been stated differently, but has brought about a lot of negative press. I had the unfortunate opportunity to listen to Michelle Bachman, who I think is rude, obnoxious and inconsiderate, try to out talk anybody else trying to make a point. When asked if she would endorse Romney, she avoided the question, by stating she was a sheep and would follow party lines. Wow! we considered this person for president? Considering my lack of faith in the republican hopefuls, as well as the mud slinging approach, I can say I will vote for Obama, I do not feel Romney is qualified. Mitt doesn't have a clue of how to deal with the struggling economy that his party created.
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