WASHINGTON — The general election campaign — President Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney — officially began Tuesday afternoon.
It's been stirring for a while, as the two combatants have been blasting away at each other. But with Rick Santorum, Romney's chief rival for the Republican nomination, leaving the race, the former Massachusetts governor is now free to aim squarely at Obama.
Former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul remain GOP contenders, but neither has shown much ability to win votes.
“Dr. Paul is now the last — and real — conservative alternative to Mitt Romney,” Paul’s campaign said in a statement on Santorum’s exit from the race. Gingrich tweeted, "It's now a two person race."
The convention delegate count suggests otherwise. Romney has 661 delegates to August's Republican National Convention so far, according to an Associated Press count, and he needs 1,144 to win. He praised Santorum on Tuesday as an "able and worthy competitor." Santorum won 285 delegates, Gingrich has 136 and Paul has 51.
So the brawl to the November finish is on. Just before Santorum announced his decision, Obama was eyeing Romney, telling a campaign event in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., "There are contrasting visions here."
The president said, "This election will probably have the biggest contrast that we’ve seen maybe since the Johnson-Goldwater election. Maybe before that."
The late Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater, a staunch conservative Republican, ran against President Lyndon Johnson, who had strong liberal support, in 1964. Johnson won in a landslide.
While Obama didn't mention Romney by name Tuesday, his campaign did.
"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," campaign manager Jim Messina said.
"The more the American people see of Mitt Romney, the less they like him and the less they trust him," he said.
At roughly the same time that Obama spoke Tuesday, Romney supporters were briefing the news media on the differences between the candidates.
"There's a sense of a lack of opportunity in the country," former Missouri Sen. Jim Talent charged. "The president's policies have burdened the economy."
Obama defends his major initiatives — the 2009 economic stimulus and the 2010 federal health care law among them _ while saying that the economy is improving.
Romney counters that the Obama measures were nothing more than big government initiatives funded by out-of-control spending and the economy isn't as robust as it could be.
At the moment, Obama is the race's slight favorite, but Romney is very much in the running. An ABC News-Washington Post poll taken from last Thursday through Sunday found that by 49-37 percent, voters thought that Obama better understands the economic problems that people in the country are having.
The margin shrunk to a 46-43 advantage when voters were asked whom they trusted to do a better job creating employment.
Tuesday's chief drama came from Santorum, who'd shocked the political world by rising from the back of the GOP presidential pack to threaten Romney. He told a rally in Gettysburg, Pa., that he'd decided to suspend his campaign over a weekend in which he'd tended to his gravely ill daughter, Bella, who suffers from a rare genetic disorder.
With streaks of confidence and defiance that typified his improbable campaign, the former two-term Pennsylvania senator told a news conference, “We will suspend our campaign effective today. We are not done fighting.”
In the end, Santorum was forced to end his campaign because he failed to do what he said no other 2012 Republican presidential candidate could do in the general election: Win in Rust Belt states such as Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and his home state.
He'd touted his ability two win two Senate terms in what was then a largely Democratic state. But his exit came two weeks before Pennsylvania’s primary, and he'd lost his bid for a third Senate term in 2006 in a crushing 18-point defeat to Democrat Bob Casey.
Polls in the Keystone State had found Santorum slipping even before Romney and his supporters dipped into the former Massachusetts' governor's campaign war chest to unleash a barrage of television ads against his rival.
In February, Santorum led Romney by 46-16 percent in a poll by Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College. By March, Santorum’s lead had evaporated, and he led Romney by 2 percentage points, a statistical dead heat.
“A month ago he was on top of the world with the wins in Alabama and Mississippi,” said G. Terry Madonna, the director of the college's Center for Politics and Public Affairs. “A month later he goes off message talking about men’s and women’s emotions in combat, about Obama’s religion, about contraceptives. I think one-third of voters being moderate and liberal, where does that leave him?”
The 53-year-old former senator's rise and fall proved a spectacular story this year. He traveled around Iowa, the site of the nation's first 2012 caucus, throughout last year, stopping to talk to handfuls of people at a time.
One by one, his chief rivals for the conservative mantle faded. Minnesota U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann won August's Iowa straw poll, usually a launch pad for a strong candidacy. But as Texas Gov. Rick Perry began his presidential bid the same day, Bachmann found herself buried under the publicity that the newest party curiosity attracted.
Perry faded, too, after a series of brutal debate performances. Then would come businessman Herman Cain, felled by allegations of sexual harassment and marital infidelity, and Gingrich, who led briefly in most polls. Santorum's message of unapologetic conservatism — and his long record of activism against abortion and other social issues dear to conservatives — made him a serious contender.
He won Iowa — though it originally was reported as a loss — and found himself in a battle with Gingrich for conservatives.
Gingrich faded, and a pattern emerged: In states such as Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, where evangelical Christians make up a large chunk of the GOP primary vote, Santorum won.
But in states where they were less influential — notably Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin — he lost. He could never broaden his appeal to the more mainstream voters whom Romney was able to attract. Nor was he able to counter Romney's ad blitz effectively. Romney and his supporters outspent Santorum by massive amounts in many states.
The pattern kept repeating in state after state: losses in more diverse states, victories in more conservative states.
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