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Romney appears to be GOP nominee -- now what?

By Peter Hamby, CNN Political Reporter
April 18, 2012 -- Updated 2329 GMT (0729 HKT)
Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, now gets to run the general election campaign he has hoped for.
Mitt Romney, the presumptive GOP nominee, now gets to run the general election campaign he has hoped for.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mitt Romney trails Barack Obama among women, Latino voters
  • Romney's team is still working on how to package its candidate
  • Wounds from bitter GOP primary seem to be healing faster than most thought
  • Anger toward Obama appears to motivate Republicans more than their candidate

St. Louis (CNN) -- After devoting seven years and tens of millions of dollars trying to convince conservatives that he is one of them, Mitt Romney finally has a firm grip on the Republican presidential nomination.

Now comes the hard part.

In a matter of weeks, Romney must shift his focus away from the right and hone his message for the mass audience that will vote in November, all while building a campaign organization to challenge Barack Obama's finely tuned machine.

The Romney campaign, long aware that their buttoned-up candidate is better suited for a general election fight than the red meat demands of a GOP primary battle, has been preparing for this moment for years.

But thanks to the heated Republican debates over contraception and immigration, Romney begins the race trailing Obama by double-digit margins among female voters and by almost 40 points among Latinos, according to some surveys.

Math like that makes it near impossible to win.

And in a campaign focused on the economy, Romney will be constantly reminded of the awkward campaign moments -- asides about owning multiple Cadillacs and palling around with NFL owners -- that called attention to his substantial personal fortune.

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"He is going to have to do his Etch A Sketch very quickly here," said Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, referencing a Romney adviser's recent comment that Romney can "shake it up" after the primary and "start all over again" in the general.

"He is coming out of a primary with the highest negatives and lowest positives as any nominee in memory," Messina told CNN in a phone interview. "That's a bad place for him to be."

Repairing damage from the primaries

Repairing that political damage was surely on the agenda on Thursday when Romney took a day off from campaigning and huddled with his advisers in Boston for a series of strategy sessions about the general election.

According to people present at the meetings, the close-knit Romney team was in good spirits after its toughest rival, Rick Santorum, dropped out of the race and cleared a path to the nomination.

But Romney and his staff were also clear-eyed about the task ahead.

"We celebrated for like 12 minutes, and now we're ready to move on to the general and do the things you have to do to get ready to go up against a bunch of guys who are really good," said one Romney confidante. "And we don't underestimate how good they are. And we're not bad either."

The mechanics of a general election -- fundraising, scheduling, coordinating tactics with the Republican National Committee -- should come easy to a campaign filled with technocrats and data hounds who reflect the managerial personality of their candidate.

But the campaign is still figuring out how to package Romney, a successful but dispassionate figure who faces questions about his core beliefs, against Obama, who continues to be well liked on a personal level in polls despite his flat job approval numbers.

The latter question -- whether Obama is up to the job -- will be the central issue of the 2012 race and the core message of the Romney campaign, said his top strategist Stuart Stevens.

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"This is a race about the direction the country and the economy and whether or not the president made things better and easier on people's daily lives since he's been elected," Stevens said. "And overwhelmingly, most Americans think that it hasn't."

Wounds are healing quickly

Just a few weeks ago, many leading Republicans would have said the most pressing demand for Romney after the long and disruptive primary process would be to unite the party.

But those wounds seem to healing more quickly than many Republicans and Democrats anticipated, despite public grousing about Romney from prominent leaders on the right such as Tony Perkins and Gary Bauer.

Santorum, who once attacked Romney as "the ultimate flip-flopper" and the "worst Republican in the country" to challenge Obama's on the issue of health care reform, is now calling on the party to put aside ideology and work together to defeat the president.

"I know there will always be complaints about, well, 'I don't like this candidate or that candidate, or they are not as good on these issues or not,' " Santorum told the annual meeting of the National Rifle Association on Friday. "We have got to win in this general election. ... I pledge to you that even though I am no longer in this race that I will be all in between now and November."

Romney, never an icon of the right, received a warm welcome at the NRA meeting, where the mere mention of the president's name elicited furious boos -- anecdotal evidence that anger toward Obama might be enough to motivate the Republican base even if Romney fails to do so on his own.

Polling bears that out: A CNN/ORC International survey released Monday showed that 63% of Romney supporters say they will be voting against Obama instead of voting for Romney.

"I honestly don't think the issue of reuniting the party is going to be as hard as some of the political commentators have said, because I think the strong unifying force and desire to beat Obama will overcome a lot of those problems," said former U.N. Ambassador John Bolton, a Romney supporter.

Senior Republicans in Washington are increasingly confident that seven months of relentless focus on economic issues will be enough to turn the tide among independent voters while keeping the base fired up.

Romney supporters also say the much-discussed "gender gap" between Obama and Romney will shrink once the Republican primary becomes a distant memory.

The president's job approval rating among women, they point out, is only at 49%, according to a recent Gallup survey. A CNN/ORC International poll released Tuesday had the number at 55%.

GOP focus: Obama's economic policies

Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a longtime player in Republican politics, said the news media's relentless focus on the GOP primary during the past six months overshadowed the lackluster presidential approval ratings that make Obama so vulnerable.

Romney can fix his standing if he makes the race a referendum on Obama's economic policies, he argued.

"This campaign is going to be waged in the center," Barbour said.

"The party apparatus, the conservatives, the tea party, the organizations like small businesses and the NRA, they will be very active in providing volunteers and our base will be very active," he said. "That's critically important. But the election is going to decided by a few million people, most of whom voted for Obama last time but have the same level of buyer's remorse as ticket purchasers on the Titanic."

Charlie Black, a top adviser to John McCain's presidential bid who is now offering counsel to Romney, noted that independents broke for Obama by eight points in 2008 but swung hard in the other direction two years later after a debate over the economy.

"So who are those people who switched? That's the battleground for this election," Black told CNN. "What they cared about then and what they care about now is the economy and jobs and big government."

'Conservatives will come around'

Meanwhile, Black said, Romney and his emissaries are assuring conservative leaders that they are the same team.

"Conservatives will come around," Black told CNN. "The fact is, his positions are perfectly fine with the base. The organized conservative movement just needs to have some communication and encouragement to come on board."

With Republicans beginning to close ranks around Romney, fewer and fewer party insiders are willing to go on the record with outright criticisms of the likely nominee.

But questions linger among some GOP leaders about whether Romney badly damaged his chances among Hispanics, a crucial voting bloc in swing states Colorado, Nevada, Florida, New Mexico and Virginia, with his hard line immigration positions.

During the primary, Romney called for "self-deportation," embraced Arizona's controversial immigration crackdown and came out against the DREAM Act, which would create a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who enroll in college or sign up for military service.

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, called the candidates' rhetoric on immigration "harsh." Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush called the discourse "troubling."

Said one top-level adviser to one of Romney's GOP rivals: "I think the way Gov. Romney chose to deliver his immigration position could be construed as mean-spirited, and we need, as Republicans, to be reaching out to all Americans not singling out certain factions with mean-spirited rhetoric."

Democrats will find seek out every opportunity to remind voters of the conservative stances Romney took in the primary -- his plan to defund Planned Parenthood, for instance, or his opposition to the auto bailout -- that may damage him among key constituencies in a handful of battleground states.

The presidency, after all, could hinge on a few thousand votes in the suburbs of Cincinnati or Denver or Las Vegas.

Romney might end up with little wiggle room in the face of such attacks thanks to the Etch A Sketch flare up in March, when he promised not to shift his positions in the general election.

"The issues I am running on will be exactly the same," Romney said at the time, trying to calm the political storm that exploded on Twitter and cable news. "I am running as a conservative Republican."

Messina, Obama's campaign chief, said he plans to keep memories of the Republican primary like that one alive well into the fall.

"He took those positions because he believes those things, and he is not going to be able to paint a new picture," Messina said of Romney.

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