Obama singles out Romney by name as Republican hopeful solidifies his lead


MILWAUKEE – Mitt Romney has tightened his grip on the Republican presidential nomination with a sweep of the primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington DC.

And, in an unmistakable signal that the US presidential and congressional elections would not wait for internal Republican politics to conclude, Mr Romney found himself in his first direct engagement with US president Barack Obama.

Mr Romney emerged from the three primaries with substantial gains in the number of delegates committed to him for the party’s selection convention in Tampa, Florida, in August. There is now a growing perception that he is winning over previously reluctant elements of the party.

In winning the main battleground of Wisconsin, he led among strong Tea Party supporters and ran closely with Rick Santorum among those who consider themselves to be very conservative and among evangelical Christians, according to exit polls.

Mr Santorum, who at one point led in polls in Wisconsin but did not contest the Washington primary, said he would continue to compete for voters who “have yet to be heard” in the coming primaries, starting with his home state Pennsylvania on April 24th.

As voters went to the polls on Tuesday, Mr Obama for the first time singled out Mr Romney by name,during a major address dedicated to the budget.

“He said that he’s ‘very supportive’ of this new budget,” Mr Obama said of Mr Romney while speaking at a meeting of editors and reporters in Washington.

Using a mocking tone and referring obliquely to perceptions of his potential opponent’s elite pedigree, Mr Obama added: “And he even called it ‘marvellous’, which is a word you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget; it’s a word you don’t hear generally.”

Taking the stage to declare victory in central Milwaukee, Mr Romney took his turn to strike general election themes.

“President Obama thinks he’s doing a good job – I’m not kidding,” Mr Romney said, speaking with a huge American flag behind him and an excited hall of supporters in front of him. “It’s enough to make you think that years of flying around on Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers telling you that you’re great and you’re doing a great job, it’s enough to make you think that you might become a little out of touch.”

Mr Obama’s new focus on Mr Romney represents a sudden but much-thought-out shift. The White House had been content until now to watch the Republican race unfold on its own and let Mr Santorum and Mr Romney batter each other. But as Mr Romney has started to solidify his delegate lead, unify his party and repair the damage to his favourability ratings from these last few months of hard campaigning, Mr Obama’s aides decided to take their engagement to a new level.

The president will not directly confront Mr Romney every day, aides said. That responsibility will largely be left to US vice-president Joe Biden and the re-election campaign. But the frequency of TV advertising is increasing, an intentional strategy of the Obama campaign to deny Mr Romney a moment to rebuild from his long and bruising primary fight.

Mr Obama, as he spoke on Tuesday about income disparity in the US, outlined what his campaign hopes to make a central question of the presidential race: should voters trust Mr Romney, one of the wealthiest candidates in modern times, to be fair to them?

The Romney campaign and party leaders said the president’s new engagement proved that Republicans had no time to waste in uniting the party behind Mr Romney, raising money and fending off such attempts before they can take root in voters’ minds.

Mr Obama’s direct engagement with Mr Romney may have raised his stature as the most likely Republican nominee. But Mr Romney must also keep an eye on Mr Santorum, who still retains some potential, however slim, to block him from reaching the 1,144 mark in the 19 Republican contests ahead.

Mr Santorum was already turning his attention to Pennsylvania, where he hopes to revive his candidacy, and also predicted a win in the delegate-rich state of Texas late next month.

Whatever the final vote tallies, the results of Mr Romney’s wins on Tuesday put him closer to the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination before the Republican convention in August. He won the majority of the 100 delegates in play in the three contests.

According to the Associated Press’s delegate tally, Mr Romney had 646 delegates, Mr Santorum had 272, Newt Gingrich had 135 and Ron Paul had 51. – (New York Times service)