Mitt Romney’s hat trick of Republican primary wins on Tuesday, while impressive, is a reminder that he is still not playing in the arena that ultimately counts.
In any other year, the presumptive GOP nominee would be pivoting to the general election campaign by now, conscious of the need to broaden his support beyond the party base by easing up on the red meat. Mr. Romney is still playing to the carnivores.
As the GOP nomination fight drags on, confining Mr. Romney on the far right with it, Barack Obama has been deftly defining his near-certain foe in November. He used a blistering speech on Tuesday to lump Mr. Romney in with “radical” Republicans in Congress whose budget proposals would favour the rich.
Almost no one now doubts that Mr. Romney will be the party’s nominee. If he is lucky, the ex-Massachusetts governor’s Tuesday victories over Rick Santorum in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia will give him the breathing room to act like it.
Unfortunately for Mr. Romney, Mr. Santorum will not be dropping out soon. He may be deluding himself, but he is counting on an April 24 win in his home state of Pennsylvania and May victories in Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas to at least deny Mr. Romney the prize.
To win, Mr. Romney and Mr. Obama will be fighting for the same centrist voters, while keeping a grip on their respective bases. So far, Mr. Obama is doing a better job of it.
A Gallup poll this week showed Mr. Romney trailing Mr. Obama by 18 percentage points among women in a dozen swing states – a sign that his recent attack on Mr. Obama’s contraception mandate as an assault on religious freedom backfired on Mr. Romney.
Mr. Romney must not only shrink that gender gap, he must cut into Mr. Obama's massive lead among Hispanic voters. Mr. Romney has barely cracked double-digit support among Latinos, compared to 31 per cent for John McCain and 44 per cent for George W. Bush.
And Mr. Romney must persuade working-class voters, a key Republican constituency, that they are better off under the smaller government he promises than Mr. Obama's activist state. Blaming Mr. Obama's policies for high gas prices is one way of doing that.
On the day of the Wisconsin primary – in which that state’s star GOP congressman, budget hawk Paul Ryan, campaigned alongside Mr. Romney – the President delivered a stinging denunciation of the deficit-obsessed duo that previewed his re-election strategy.
“Disguised as a deficit-reduction plan, it’s really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Ryan’s most recent budget proposal, for which Mr. Romney has expressed support. “It’s nothing but thinly veiled social Darwinism.”
Mr. Ryan, the earnest chairman of the House of Representatives budget committee, has been touted as a vice-presidential running mate. Touring Wisconsin together in recent days, Mr. Romney and Mr. Ryan seemed to be test-driving a Romney-Ryan ticket.
Mr. Obama’s attack Tuesday on the latest iteration of Mr. Ryan’s plan to pull the United States out of the fiscal quicksand was a canny campaign speech that shifted the focus from the President’s own failure to tackle the deficit.
In a speech to U.S. newspaper editors, Mr. Obama described the Ryan budget plan that sailed through the Republican-led House last week as a “Trojan Horse” that would widen the chasm between rich and poor, and sap the country’s ability to compete globally.
The Ryan plan would flatten federal income-tax rates and turn Medicare into a defined-contribution scheme under which most future seniors would pay more out of pocket.
Republicans call it a courageous proposal to a stave off a debt crisis. Mr. Obama called it warmed-over trickle-down dogmatism betraying the modern GOP’s extreme views.
“It makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal,” Mr. Obama quipped, suggesting Newt Gingrich, architect of the 1994 Contract, had more in common with Franklin Roosevelt than with the modern GOP.
The President, flashing a impish grin, noted that Mr. Romney called the Ryan plan “marvellous – which is a word you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget. It’s a word you don’t often hear generally.”
A cheap shot, but it reinforced Mr. Romney’s patrician image, which the millionaire ex-Bain Capital chief has a damaging habit of doing himself, anyway.
Mr. Romney’s idea of a funny anecdote last week was to recount the time his father closed an auto plant in Michigan to save one in Wisconsin. That followed news that the California vacation home he is building will have an elevator – for his cars.
The election is not lost for Mr. Romney. After all, he can define his opponent, too. His attacks on Mr. Obama’s vision of “a government-centred society” resonate among centrist voters who think the state has grown too big on this President’s watch.
But with primary battles still to fight, Mr. Romney is running out of time to reintroduce himself to voters whose impression of him becomes more indelible by the day.