Has the general election begun? The president and the GOP's top contender appear to be campaigning against each other.
Republican Mitt Romney announces another endorsement. President Obama announces another fundraising haul. Top Democratic operatives focus their attacks on Romney, who announces another endorsement.
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Before a single primary or caucus vote has been cast, it's starting to feel like the 2012 general-election campaign is under way.
Romney outgunned the rest of the GOP field in yet another debate on Tuesday after receiving a coveted endorsement from one of his party's top stars, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Despite Romney's protests to the contrary, his posture toward his rivals and appeals to swing voters shows that he clearly sees himself as the presumptive nominee. So does the Democratic Party, which dispatched Obama's senior adviser, David Axelrod, to launch an offensive against Romney the next day. Top Democratic operatives in Iowa and New Hampshire picked up the attack against the former Massachusetts governor on Thursday, while Axelrod lobbed new criticism of his trade policy toward China.
The growing consensus about Romney's prospects by the political establishment in both parties, combined with the possibility that primary and caucus voting will begin as early as December, suggests that there could be a speedy resolution to the race for the Republican nomination -- and a prolonged, and undoubtedly nasty, general-election campaign.
"A series of strong debates, Christie's endorsement and Rick Perry's drop in the polls are creating an aura of inevitability about Romney,'' said Republican fundraiser Fred Malek, who has not endorsed a candidate. "I think a quick decision on our nominee is clearly to our advantage, because a long nominating process could mean that person emerges without the necessary funding to fight back a well-funded onslaught from the Obama campaign.''
Nothing is for certain, of course, in what has been one of the most volatile Republican primaries in decades. The latest polls show a dramatic and unpredicted surge by corporate executive Herman Cain, a political rookie whose support just weeks ago was registering in the single digits. While restless conservative voters have toyed with Donald Trump, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Perry, and now Cain, Romney's support seems to have hit a ceiling at roughly one-quarter of the electorate. And that's before any of his rivals have aired a single attack ad against him.
It's still possible for those fickle Republican conservatives to coalesce around a Romney alternative, although only the now-faltering Perry appears to have the fundraising prowess, political organization, and experience to pose a serious threat. While New Hampshire is threatening to hold its first-in-the-nation primary as early as December unless Nevada moves back its Jan. 14 caucus, a new system for doling out delegates will make it harder for any one candidate to quickly wrap up the nomination. States that vote before April can only award delegates proportionally, leaving the most bountiful, winner-take-all states until the end of the primary season.
Even so, a showdown between Romney and Obama seems increasingly so likely that it's already happening.
In fact, the 2012 general-election campaign may have begun halfway through Tuesday night's debate, when Romney suddenly turned his biggest liability into a weapon. Faced, once again, with a question about the parallels between the health insurance requirement he enacted as governor of Massachusetts and "Obamacare,'' Romney didn't just defend his plan and bash President Obama. The emboldened governor used his health care record to whack Perry, assailing the Texas governor for leaving 1 million kids without insurance.
"I care about people,'' Romney said, striking the tone of a politician seeking to build the broadest possible coalition of support. Later in the debate, in response to a question about how he would break gridlock in Washington, he joked about being the former governor of a state "that had a few Democrats.''
Looking well past his opponents and toward a general election that will be decided by moderate voters who care, above all else, about the economy, Romney added, "You know that good Democrats and good Republicans who love the country first will be able to find common ground from time to time and recognize we can't keep on spending like we're spending, we can't demand more from tax revenue from people, because that kills jobs and hurts working families. We have got to help the middle class in this country.''
In the telephone call he arranged with reporters, Axelrod mocked Romney's professed concern for the middle class, noting that he opposes the president's plan to temporarily cut the payroll tax. Axelrod pivoted into a tirade against Romney as a flip-flopper on a number of issues, including abortion and gay rights.
"He is the front-runner, in that he is consolidating strands of the Republican electorate, and it's not a bad idea to start exposing the choice people will face in November,'' said Democratic consultant Mike Feldman, who worked in the Clinton administration. "If you put someone next to Obama and shine a light on that person, that person has a record. That person has flaws. We can't wait to begin to define that choice.''
Image credit: Brian Blanco/AP