For all practical purposes, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney captured the Republican nomination for President Tuesday, sweeping primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia and passing the halfway point in securing the delegates needed for nomination.
Having dispatched a multitude of on-again, off-again pretenders to the GOP throne, Romney can now turn his attention from opponents of his own party and focus on the increasingly difficult challenge of trying to dispatch an incumbent President who will have more money, better organization and broader appeal than any of the Republicans he vanquished.
“Barack Obama will be a tougher opponent than anyone Romney has faced to date,” GOP strategist Jan Black tells Capitol Hill Blue. “Romney will most likely emerge from the GOP convention as the underdog in the general election. That’s unfamiliar territory for him.”
Although none of the three remaining opponents to Romney for the GOP nod show any indication of getting out of the race, the contest for the nomination is effectively over. The GOP establishment stands firmly behind Romney and exit polls show even tea party-inclined votes and moving over to him.
“I can live with Romney,” says tea party supporter Andie Litchfield of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “I can’t live with Obama and if Romney can beat him I’ll go with Mitt.”
While enthusiasm for Romney is muted among mainstream Republican voters, they appear willing to accept the inevitable and go with the flow. Their attitude is “he’s not the best but he’s what we’ve got.”
The problem for Republicans was that the best candidate for the job – if there is one – is not in the race for the nomination this year. Chris Christie, Jeb Bush and others touted as best for the job are sitting out 2012, leaving the race to a second tier of candidates that even the most optimistic of GOP strategists admit may be doomed to serve as a sacrificial lamb to a weak incumbent President who should be ripe for defeat.
“If Obama wins re-election, and at this point it looks like he will, he can thank a fractured, dysfunctional GOP for giving it to him,” grumbles one veteran GOP consultant.
Still, Republicans can hope that a fragile economy recovery collapses, unemployment remains high and gas prices continue to rise to fuel voter anger against Obama. But struggling Americans might have trouble identifying with a moneyed GOP candidate who has never known hunger, unemployment or difficulty meeting a mortgage payment.
“Romney faces an uphill fight, there’s no doubt about that,” says Alan Blackwell, a GOP media producer, “but a lot of things can change between now and November.”