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Political Intelligence

As Romney solidifies front-runner status, focus turns to Obama

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (right) endorsed Mitt Romney last week in New Hampshire. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (right) endorsed Mitt Romney last week in New Hampshire. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
By Glen Johnson
Globe Staff / October 16, 2011

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WASHINGTON - Among the Republicans angling to move into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. a year from January, Mitt Romney is the closest to achieving his goal.

The former Massachusetts governor has reached the decisive phase in his presidential campaign: attempting to consolidate his support and cinch the nomination.

Earlier than some political analysts projected, and even before the first caucus or primary votes have been cast, Romney has cemented his front-runner status with strong debate performances (the latest this past week), steady fund-raising, and a candidacy that has endured the rise of challengers such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, as well as potential opponents including Sarah Palin and Donald Trump.

Now, fueling the aura of inevitability, he is winning the endorsements of marquee Republicans like New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who considered his own challenge to Romney and the rest of the GOP field but decided against it.

Romney’s most ardent conservative critics have been left to rally around Herman Cain, simultaneously engaged in a book tour and presidential campaign, in a last-ditch effort to prevent his nomination.

None of this ensures that Romney will be the Republicans’ 2012 presidential nominee; there is another debate Tuesday in Las Vegas, as well as a primary calendar that could schedule meaningful contests as late as next March.

Similarly, it doesn’t ensure he would beat President Obama and his seasoned campaign team as the incumbent seeks reelection a year from now.

But with the primary field finally set and Perry, the closest challenger, struggling in debates and racing to develop policies Romney devised during his 2008 campaign or announced months ago, the Romney staff is focused on what it sees as an inevitable clash with Obama and the Democrats.

“Osama bin Laden was having a great day until the helicopters started hovering over his compound,’’ one top Romney adviser recently told the Globe. “We know the helicopters are coming for us at some point, but everything in this campaign has been geared toward that confrontation.’’

The president and his supporters lend credence to the analysis, training virtually all their focus on Romney rather than the rest of the GOP primary field.

“Rick Perry’s sudden decline and Herman Cain’s concurrent surge reinforce an important point about the primary: Republican voters are still desperately shopping for an alternative to Romney,’’ former White House spokesman Bill Burton, now running a pro-Obama “super PAC,’’ wrote in a media memorandum last week. “While he may well end up the nominee, it is only because their voters will have exhausted all other options.’’

The Romney campaign is delighting in such attention, making it the focus of its most recent quick-hit Web video.

“What is the White House nervous about?’’ it begins, before highlighting recent Romney-centric statements made by press secretary Jay Carney, political adviser David Axelrod, and the president himself.

The contours of an Obama-Romney matchup are already plain to see.

On the decisive issue of the day - the economy - Obama says his auto industry bailout and stimulus package have saved the country from a second Great Depression. Now, he argues, the pro-Republican Tea Party caucus in the House is blocking his jobs plans and a swifter recovery from the recession.

“Next week, I’m urging members of Congress to vote on putting hundreds of thousands of teachers back in the classroom, cops back on the streets, and firefighters back on the job,’’ the president said yesterday during his weekly radio address. “And if they vote ‘no’ on that, they’ll have to tell you why.’’

Romney says America has suffered for taking a chance in 2008 on such a young and relatively inexperienced leader as Obama. Instead, the former venture capitalist argues, the country needs the experience he gained as a private-sector businessman.

“We have got to help the middle class in this country,’’ Romney said during last week’s debate at Dartmouth College. “The only way that will come together is if you have people on both sides of the aisle who listen to a leader who has the experience of leading. And that’s what America is looking for and desperately longing for.’’

Glen Johnson is lead blogger for Political Intelligence, available at www.boston.com/politics. He can be reached at johnson@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.