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It will be Romney vs. Obama

Mitt Romney addresses supporters Tuesday night in Boston.  He has proven to be a tough-minded candidate, the author says.

Story highlights

  • Mitt Romney wins the most states, votes and delegates in Super Tuesday contests
  • Peter Wehner: Romney has essentially locked up the GOP nomination
  • Wehner: Romney's not as strong as his supporters had hoped nor as weak as his critics think
  • He says the key to a Romney victory in the fall will be to focus on President Obama's record

It wasn't pretty and it wasn't easy, but Mitt Romney has essentially locked up the GOP nomination.

On Super Tuesday, the former Massachusetts governor won the most states (six out of 10), the most votes (nearly 1.4 million vs. 819,000 for his closest rival, Rick Santorum) and the most delegates (more than 210 Super Tuesday delegates vs. less than 180 for his three rivals).

Romney now leads in total delegates (404 vs. 165 for Santorum, 106 for Gingrich, and 66 for Paul). He is the only GOP candidate to have won states in every region of the country. He has the most money, the best organization and the only realistic path to the nomination.

It's true that Romney has faced an unusually weak field of contenders and has struggled against them. He won Ohio, a bellwether state, by only 12,000 votes (out of almost 1.2 million cast) against Santorum, an underfunded candidate who was off-message for much of the last couple of weeks.

Pete Wehner

Romney still has problems connecting with lower income, evangelical and younger voters. His favorability ratings among independents are quite low. And he seems to be better at vanquishing opponents than inspiring voters. Romney is, at this juncture at least, a relatively weak front-runner. Of course, so was Bill Clinton at a similar juncture in 1992.

But Romney has proven to be a tough-minded candidate. He is an effective, and at times outstanding, debater. He's resilient, fairly disciplined and knowledgeable on policy. In the last few weeks in particular, he has begun to move away from an over reliance on his biography to a sharper economic message.

    At this point, he's not as strong as his supporters had hoped nor as weak as his critics think. He has at least an even chance of being the next president of the United States.

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    Romney faces, after all, an incumbent who is in the weakest position of any since Jimmy Carter in 1979. While President Barack Obama's standing is better than it was last fall, his Gallup approval rating remains dangerously low (43% in the most recent one). The president is weaker in swing states than the rest of the country. Republican voters are more enthusiastic than Democratic ones. The economy, while having improved in recent months, remains weak, and the recovery quite fragile. There is widespread unease among voters.

    A majority of Americans aren't inclined to re-elect Obama, who has disappointed them on almost every front. The question is whether Romney will provide them enough assurance, enough reasons, to place their confidence in him. That is what the next eight months will determine.

    Romney faces several tasks, including closing out the race while sustaining minimal damage from his rivals, uniting the party eventually and raising enough money to compete with the president on a relatively even playing field.

    The keys to a Romney victory in the fall will be keeping focus on Obama's inept record and reminding voters of the gaping gap between what Obama said as a candidate and how he has governed. In light of the last three years, Obama's rhetoric in 2008 -- his promise to repair the country, heal the earth and reverse the rise of the oceans -- looks childish and absurd.

    Romney needs to convince people that if we stay on the path Obama has put us on, we face fiscal wreckage (think Greece) and even more economic hardship. Romney has to present a compelling and comprehensive agenda, particularly on the economic side. And he has to provide a narrative -- an evocative theme -- that tells voters what a Romney presidency can achieve. He needs to find a way to touch voters' hearts and not simply their minds -- something that doesn't come easily to him.

    The path to the presidency is always long and arduous. Romney has completed the rough-and-tumble first stage and at a higher cost than he might have hoped for. Yet out of a field of nine GOP contenders and a half-dozen who could have made a plausible run for the presidency (Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour, Jeb Bush, Chris Christie, Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio), it is Romney who will eventually scale the mountain.

    He is not a naturally gifted campaigner, but he has shown he can win when he has to do so. And in the fall, he'll be debating Obama one-on-one, probably with the presidency within his grasp.

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        Election 2012

      • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage with first lady Michelle Obama, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden after his victory speech on election night at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

        A black man is returning to the White House. Four years ago, it was a first, the breaking of a racial barrier. Tuesday night, it was history redux. And more.
      • CHICAGO, IL - NOVEMBER 06:  U.S. President Barack Obama stands on stage after his victory speech at McCormick Place November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. Obama won reelection against Republican candidate, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

        The 2012 presidential election shattered spending records, further polarized a divided country and launched a thousand hashtags.
      • Even though voters indicated to pollsters that their financial situation is the same or worse than it was four years ago, they put their trust in the president.
      • US President Barack Obama addresses a crowd of supporters on stage on election night November 6, 2012 in Chicago, Illinois. President Barack Obama swept to re-election Tuesday, forging history again by transcending a slow economic recovery and the high unemployment which haunted his first term to beat Republican Mitt Romney. AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad        (Photo credit should read JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

        The president faces a long and familiar set of challenges after riding a wave of support from moderates, women and minorities to victory.
      • Republicans kept a lock on the U.S. House of Representatives, a crucial victory after the party failed to wrest away the presidency from Barack Obama and the Senate from the Democrats.