Mitt Romney strode into a town hall meeting here late afternoon Monday, not accompanied by his wife or sons, but by one of the biggest stars in the national Republican Party: US Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
That Congressman Ryan introduced Mr. Romney, and then sat beside him to help answer audience questions signals a shift in a tumultuous GOP presidential primary. After four months of hard knocks against GOP rivals, Romney is back to the place he wanted to be from the beginning – looking presidential.
Leading in polls for today's Wisconsin primary, the former Massachusetts governor no longer considers himself just another nominee, but the inevitable challenger to President Obama who must now start focusing on winning the race in November.
Unlike GOP challenger Rick Santorum, who spent over a week in the state making appearances in small towns, Romney dropped into just four counties and avoided standard photo-ops like bowling or eating bratwurst with locals, which is the bread-and-butter strategy of the Santorum campaign.
Instead, Romney is striking a more presidential tone, refusing to attack or even mention his opponents, and instead sticking to purely fiscal issues such as the economic prosperity, growing jobs, and health care. He is direct in his criticism of Mr. Obama but, unlike Mr. Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, his tone is less sanctimonious and more respectful.
“He did not cause the recession … but he was going to be the one who was going to end it,” Romney said of the president Monday.
Meanwhile in Washington, President Obama today let loose on both Romney and Ryan, with his first, all-out attack on Ryan's House GOP budget plan and, on Monday, his first television ad to go after Romney by name, targeting ties to Big Oil.
Romney appears eager to take up the fight.
“What he’s been talking about at those campaign stops has really been about President Obama. He no longer mentions Santorum and has changed his focus and is talking more about national issues,” says Arnold Shober, a political scientist at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis.
It helps that Romney is also picking up endorsements from key figures in his party based in Wisconsin. Most top Republicans in this state – with the notable exception of GOP Governor Scott Walker – have explicitly lent Romney their support, including US Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, who introduced both Romney and Ryan Monday, and US Sen. Ron Johnson.
Governor Walker is facing a recall election in June and has said he is not endorsing a candidate, so he can focus on his reelection. Still, Romney drew strong applause from the Milwaukee crowd when he said he received a phone call that day from “your governor,” who called to urge Romney to talk more about his experience organizing the 2002 Winter Olympics.
The endorsements in Wisconsin are evidence the national “party is beginning to see him as the likely nominee,” says Charles Franklin, polling director at the Marquette University School of Law. Recent polls show that Romney has a better chance at defeating President Obama than his GOP rivals, he adds. The ultimate seal of approval will come if Romney defeats Santorum in Pennsylvania, Santorum’s home state, on April 24.
“A Romney win here really sets Romney up to say, ‘I won Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, and now we’re into Pennsylvania – and I’m going to win there,’ ” Mr. Franklin says. “Obviously a defeat of a home state candidate is really the coup de grâce of a candidacy.”
Continually drilling down on social issues and reaching out to blue-collar voters might be effective in any other primary season, but the approach is working against Santorum in current polling, because some voters say they worry that his views on issues such as contraceptive coverage are alienating independents and the more moderate voters the party needs in the national election.
“I like the guy but he needs to think about the things he says,” says Mr. Blackburn. “I would vote for him next time. Not that social issues don't matter. But they don’t matter this year.”
Mr. Shober agrees: “Some of Santorum’s policy positions are not really part of the winning Wisconsin Republican message” who tend to be more left of the center while Romney’s “message is much closer to the standard mainstream.”
Ryan is such a star among Wisconsin Republicans – indeed, at the town hall meeting he received a more energized round of applause than the man he was introducing – that he would seem a natural choice on Romney’s shortlist of vice-presidential choices. His strengths: He is a fiscal conservative who, unlike Romney, has worked in government at the federal level.
“Ryan can say he knows what a federal budget looks like. That would be a complement to Romney,” he says.