GOP debates will continue, but the real race is Obama vs. Romney

Mitt Romney and Barack Obama seem to be running against each other, even though it'll be months before Republicans choose their champion to run against the President. Many political operatives also are focusing on this two-man fight.

Stephan Savoia/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, right, accompanied by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, takes part in a news conference in Lebanon, NH., Oct. 11, 2011, where Christie announced he would be endorsing Romney.

Forget the straw votes and most state polls. Forget the possibility that Herman Cain and Rick Perry could overcome their very different distractions over sexual harassment and inarticulateness. Forget Newt Gingrich’s current mini-surge, or that Ron Paul’s dedicated and enthusiastic following might somehow convince other Republicans to embrace his unique brand of libertarianism.

In the end, it’ll likely be Mitt Romney vs. Barack Obama in the 2012 president election.

At least that’s what a more thorough reading of national polls and much of the pundit analysis indicates.

According to the latest from Gallup, Romney is more competitive against Obama than any of the other Republican hopefuls, and the two are tied nationally and in swing states.

In the first Quinnipiac University "Swing State Poll" of the 2012 cycle, released last week, Romney virtually ties Obama in Florida, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. Romney also does better than Cain among the crucial independent bloc of voters.

“Herman Cain and Romney lead the Republican primary pack in all three states,” Quinnipiac reported. “But when all voters – not just Republicans – are asked about Romney and Cain, voters are more comfortable with the idea of Romney as president. Romney is considered more honest and trustworthy and makes a more favorable impression, while Cain is viewed more unfavorably.”

Such findings are not lost on professional Republicans, especially fund-raisers.

Once New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie gave his final “no” on running last month, Republican National Committee finance co-chair Georgette Mosbacher reportedly had this to say:

“I would say that the race is now Romney and Obama. Quite frankly, the enthusiasm wasn’t there at the outset. He’s less conservative than a lot of us would like. However, our first and foremost goal is to defeat Obama. And we do believe Romney, in terms of independents, will be a strong candidate. We will coalesce behind him now…. Tomorrow I’ll be on the phone all day. Quite frankly, it’ll be easier, because now we know who it is who will be our nominee. So we will pull our Rolodexes out and get to work.”

Christie, by the way, has endorsed Romney and was stumping for him in New Hampshire last week.

Meanwhile, last week’s state and special elections did not result in the “shellacking” that Democrats crumbled under in last year’s midterms, and that can be considered a plus for Obama.

“Tuesday showed that the powerful Republican tailwind of 2010 … is now becalmed,” wrote conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer. “Between now and November 2012, things can break either way.”

That argues for a more moderate Republican able to match Obama’s intellect and rhetorical skills in debates and on the stump, and also one more likely to move beyond the rancorous gridlock in Washington today – something most Americans yearn for.

“Rhetoric aside, both are more comfortable with compromise and consensus than confrontation,” writes Al Hunt, executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. “Obama, despite criticism from Republicans and some business circles that he’s a left-winger, consistently has shown a willingness to move to the middle.”

“As governor, Romney displayed some of the same tendencies when working with a Democratic state legislature,” Hunt writes. “As president, he’d be more likely to look for deals than accept a stalemate when it comes to addressing the deficit.”

Long before the primary elections and caucuses begin, Obama and Romney already seem to be running against each other.

That’s very obvious in the way Romney conducts himself in GOP debates – including Saturday night’s debate focusing on national security and foreign policy.

And as David Lightman of McClatchy Newspapers points out, “The Obama re-election campaign has been running against the former Massachusetts governor as if it's fall 2012, a highly unusual strategy for an incumbent president so early in the election cycle.”

Obama campaign spokesmen and Democratic National Committee chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz frequently focus their fire on Romney. So does Priorities USA Action, an independent political group formed by former Obama staffers. The group’s lead web message: “Reject Romney's America.”

If the highly-skillful (and very well financed) Obama political operation thinks Romney’s the man to beat, there must be something to it.

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