TOPICS > Politics

With 3 More Wins, Romney Pivots to General Election, Sharpens Attacks on Obama

April 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
After sweeping three primaries Tuesday and inching closer to the GOP nomination, Mitt Romney railed against President Obama's response to the economic crisis and accused him of running from his record. Judy Woodruff, Christina Bellantoni and Patchwork Nation's Dante Chinni discuss the emerging general election politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The fall presidential field moved closer to firming up today in the wake of Tuesday’s Republican primaries. And the man who’s looking more and more like the GOP nominee went after the man he hopes to oust from the White House.

MITT ROMNEY (R): Thank you to Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C.


MITT ROMNEY: We won them all.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Mitt Romney’s trifecta on Tuesday night all but assured he will clinch the Republican nomination. And it shifted his focus ever more toward the fall and President Obama.

In Washington, Romney told newspaper editors that the president indulged in distortions when he denounced Republican budget ideas as social Darwinism.

MITT ROMNEY: The president came here yesterday and railed against arguments no one is making and criticized policies no one is proposing. It’s one of his favorite strategies, setting up straw men to distract us from his record. And while I understand the president doesn’t want to run on his record, he can’t run from his record either.

With all the challenges the nation faces, this is not the time for President Obama’s hide-and-seek campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president had singled out Romney by name for supporting what he called a prescription for decline.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: One of my potential opponents, Gov. Romney, has said that he hoped a similar version of this plan from last year would be introduced as a bill on day one of his presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Romney charged today it’s Mr. Obama who has taken an economy in trouble and made it even worse.

MITT ROMNEY: President Obama’s answer to our economic crisis was more spending, more debt and larger government. No president has ever run a trillion-dollar deficit. The new normal the president would have us embrace is trillion-dollar deficits and 8 percent unemployment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Republican frontrunner aimed to stay on the attack against the incumbent, hoping his latest wins would finally put the primary season behind him.

A look at the NewsHour’s Vote 2012 Map Center shows that, in Wisconsin, Romney dominated the city of Milwaukee and surrounding suburbs, helping him win the Badger State 44 percent to Rick Santorum’s 37 percent. In Maryland, he defeated Santorum 49 to 29 percent. And he cruised to victory in the District of Columbia, where Santorum wasn’t on the ballot.

With Romney’s momentum building, pressure mounted on Santorum. Campaigning in his home state of Pennsylvania today, the former senator vowed to press on.

RICK SANTORUM (R): One of the Romney people said, all of the significant people have already spoken in the Republican Party. Well, we’ll let the other half of the Republican Party, starting here in Pennsylvania, to go out in three weeks and during this period of time grab a yard sign, take a bumper sticker, spread the word and you can reset this election and give us the best chance not just to win, but to govern conservatively in this country. Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Even so, the delegate math for Santorum is daunting. It takes 1,144 delegates to win the nomination.

And according to the latest count by the Associated Press, Romney earned 86 delegates from yesterday’s primary wins, bringing his total to 658. Santorum took away nine delegates. His total is now 281. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul did not win any delegates Tuesday. They remain at 135 and 51, respectively.

Santorum has acknowledged that Pennsylvania is a must-win for his flagging campaign. From there, he hopes to pick up delegates in several Southern primaries, including Texas in May.

As these campaigns look down the road, what are the lessons learned so far, and is a fall election strategy shaping up?

For more, we turn to Dante Chinni. He’s director of Patchwork Nation, a reporting collaboration with the NewsHour and others that examines economic, social and political trends, and NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni.

It’s great to have you both with us.

So, Dante, you’ve been looking at these results. What do you see there? What do you see that tells you how Mitt Romney pulled this off in these three contests, especially Wisconsin?

DANTE CHINNI, project director, Patchwork Nation: I think we’ve been waiting for a while with Romney to see if there’s a point, a tipping point, where he starts winning some of these voters he hasn’t won, because he’s had a hard time with people on the lower end of the income scale, he’s had a hard time with cultural conservatives.

And the way we break down the state of Wisconsin, for example, at Patchwork Nation, we have these — a lot of small-town counties called service worker centers. Those have gone heavily for Santorum, even in states he’s lost. He lost Illinois, but he won those counties by 9 percent. He won them last night only by 2 percent. So they look like they’re starting to turn more toward Romney now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re seeing a distinct improvement in Romney’s performance?

DANTE CHINNI: Yeah. And I don’t know if it’s — I think it’s maybe coming to terms in some of these places. I don’t know if he’s winning these voters outright, but they’re deciding that it’s going to be Romney and they’re falling in line.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Christina, before we talk about the general election and more about Romney, what about Santorum? We just heard him. It doesn’t sound like he’s going away any time soon.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: No, he’s not going away. And even — he’s couching terms a little bit. He may not even be able to win his home state of Pennsylvania.

Don’t forget he lost his Senate seat there in 2006 by a large margin. And even if he does, you’re still not talking about a whole lot of delegates. Those numbers that we just showed on the screen really demonstrate how mathematically difficult it becomes for Santorum here.

So then he keeps talking about Texas at the end of May. That’s another state. It’s so proportional the way they award these delegates, which is how Romney has been able to start to amass this big lead as it is. So what you’re hearing from Santorum is a little bit of a shift in his language. He’s picked a very specific thing to go after Romney with and that’s the health care issue.

He’s saying we need someone with a big difference with President Obama on health care and not somebody with a small difference with President Obama. That’s very different than some of the nastier language you heard a few weeks ago. So I think perhaps he’s starting to look at this and think about his own future within the party, making his message heard there.

And he’s also not spending very much money. Romney has outspent him every place they’ve campaigned so far. So he’s able to go out there and campaign in a fairly affordable way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Christina, how does Romney’s strategy change now? Dose he — can he just afford to ignore Santorum?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: I think that the campaign, they’re not telling us exactly what they want to do, but when you look at some of the moves they have made, they’ve made a very direct pivot to President Obama and to ignoring Santorum.

From not mentioning him — just a few days ago, they were still attacking Santorum in press releases, calling him “Rick Spendtorum” for his record on earmarks when he was in Congress. They’ve gone completely away from that and they’re looking at Obama.

And they’re also starting to look at, well, okay, Pennsylvania, it’s three weeks away, we have time to build up a campaign there, and we have the advantage that it’s a battleground state. That’s one reason he spent so much time in Wisconsin. The campaign was very confident there, but they know that that’s a swing state they are going to need to look at in the general.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, Dante, back to you.

In terms of Romney and what he needs to do going forward, what do you see in yesterday’s results that show what his challenge is?

DANTE CHINNI: I mean, his — Romney, everywhere he’s gone so far in the primaries, he’s done very well in wealthy suburban areas and cities. Right? Those have been his core constituencies.

And he held them again in Wisconsin and he built on them, which is great. What we don’t know yet going forward is he’s really going to be battling Obama. These big cities and wealthy suburbs, those were Obama’s strongest areas. The wealthy suburbs, what we call the “moneyed burbs” in Patchwork Nation, Obama won them by 12 percentage points in 2008.

John Kerry won them by only one percentage point in 2004, Al Gore by three percentage points in 2000. So this was huge for him. So they are going to be fighting over the same turf. And Romney has shown that he can win the Republican voters there. I think the challenge he’s going to face is he needs to pivot to the general election, because he needs to start — he’s winning those voters there, but he’s winning Republicans there.

To win independents there, he’s going to have to — nobody wants to talk about shaking the Etch A Sketch or whatever, but he’s going to need to turn his campaign a little bit and start talking more about moderate, independent issues — issues for independent voters, things like that. He’s got to start making that turn. And I would think — I would do it — the sooner the better for him.


And what about organization, Christina, and the kind of ground operation? I mean let’s talk about the general election. What do you know in brief that the Obama campaign and that the Romney campaign have on the ground?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: So the Obama people — today is actually the one-year anniversary of when he launched his reelection bid. So that gives you an indication of how long they have been plotting for this.

They have campaign offices in every state, in some cases dozens of campaign offices in those states, the states. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: In a single state.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: . . . that they’re looking at expanding the map.

North Carolina is a strong one for them, Virginia, Nevada. They’re looking at these things. And the Romney people are not really able to do that, but because he’s doing this new transitioning where he’s allowing joint fund-raising with the RNC — basically the RNC has offered this to any candidate: You can come in and do joint fund-raising with us.

That money goes to the RNC and it allows them to start building their state-by-state organizations. They’re adding staff in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida. They’re looking at Hispanic outreach directors in a lot of these states because they really understand that one of Romney’s issues — and this is one advantage he has with the long primary.

It’s revealed he’s starting to lose women voters to Obama, and he has a problem with Hispanic voters. So they have time to make a correction there. He’s also turning to focus a little bit more on foreign policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this mention of Hispanic voters and women voters, Dante, gets to a piece you wrote for The Washington Post this past weekend where you talk about this practice frankly that many of us who cover politics are guilty of.

DANTE CHINNI: Myself included. Yes, myself included.

And we talk a lot about women in particular. Women are such a massive part of the electorate. It’s half the voting populace, actually a little more. And, look, does Romney have a problem with women? When you look at women as a whole, yes, he does.

But there are some women that are more conservative than others.


DANTE CHINNI: And I do think that the big one really is — you talk about Hispanics. This is a really bad habit we have in the media of talking about Hispanics or Latinos, because the idea that, well, he could bring on Rubio, Rubio would help him as a vice president and help him win Hispanics, you know, Rubio would help him in — Senator Rubio would help him in Florida.

But the idea that that’s going to matter to Arizona, Mexico, Colorado, not all Hispanics and Latinos are the same. They have different issues. They come from other parts of the world before — other parts of the world before they came here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are different types of Latino, Hispanic voters. There are many different types of women. . .

DANTE CHINNI: Many different types of men.


JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . who think differently — and men and young people.


JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . and so on.

So, finally, Christina, just another word about the Obama camp. How do they see this next phase in the campaign?

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Well, they’re all doing a little bit of patting themselves on the back, because as the entire Republican primary unfolded over the last six months, there were a lot of ups and downs, but they were laser-focused on Romney from the very beginning.

They looked at him as most likely to win the general — most likely to win the primary nomination, but also just the person who’s their toughest foe. And so they have really been chipping away at his image. His positives have gone remarkably down. That’s not just from the primary campaign. That’s what the Obama people have been doing.

You can expect to see them step up the fund-raising for the president and then also shore up these organizational areas. And you are going to see more ads on TV. They’ve already stepped that up. You are going to see it even more.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it won’t be dull.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And we thank you both.

Christina Bellantoni, Dante Chinni, thank you.