Now that his main competitor Rick Santorum is out of the Republican presidential race, it's time for Mitt Romney to rebuild party unity and shore up his vulnerabilities as the general-election campaign starts in earnest.
Santorum suspended his campaign Tuesday after emerging as Romney's chief adversary on the right. He won 11 states but fell far behind Romney in victories, nominating delegates, and fundraising. In the end, he saw no realistic path to the nomination.
Santorum's exit leaves Romney with two remaining opponents--former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas--but neither is considered much of a threat for the nomination.
GOP strategists say Romney needs to focus now on five objectives as the presumptive nominee:
1. Heal the wounds of the primaries and caucuses, when Romney couldn't fully persuade hard-line conservatives and evangelical Christians that he would adequately represent them. He needs to reach out to them now and ask them to unite behind him to defeat President Obama.
2. Show that there is a heart and soul underneath the technocratic, buttoned-down exterior. Romney often comes across as a wealthy Brahmin who doesn't understand everyday people. GOP strategists say he needs to find a biographical moment, perhaps his service as a young Mormon missionary or an emphasis on his devotion to his family to show warmth and empathy.
3. Hit Obama on the economy more than ever. Fixing the economy has always been Romney's main pitch but he has sometimes been diverted because his GOP rivals pushed him to take stands on social issues ranging from contraception to admitting women as members of the Augusta National Golf Club. He needs to get back on the economic message virtually full-time because unemployment, high gasoline prices, and related issues are what voters are most concerned about.
4. Cultivate voting blocs that have become alienated from Romney because of his hard right tilt during the primaries. They include women and Latinos. Recent polls show Romney lagging behind Obama with both groups, who will be crucial in the November election.
5. Pick a solid vice presidential running mate. The Romney team has assured Republican leaders that all the potential choices will need to undergo intense scrutiny by Romney associates before he makes a choice. Among those believed to be on his short list are Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.