The Gladiators Enter the Arena

With Tuesday’s sweep of primaries in Maryland, the District of Columbia, and especially Wisconsin, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is now going to be the Republican presidential candidate.

Intrade, the electronic prediction market, gives him a 95% chance of winning the GOP nomination.

Romney’s principal challenger, former Senator Rick Santorum, may win his home state of Pennsylvania in three weeks, but he has no hope beyond that.

Santorum, a third-tier candidate and a religious fanatic, has made virtually no constructive contribution to this race. Instead, he’s forced the opportunistic Romney to tack so far to the right on ridiculous “issues” like birth control that the likely nominee’s negatives have hit 50% in one poll. Romney does especially poorly among Republican and independent women, who may well decide this election.

Mitt and Ann Romney campaign in Charleston, SC in January. Photo: Howard R. Gold/The Independent Agenda

At this point, Romney can safely ignore Santorum and focus on the president, which he has been trying to do since New Hampshire. But he can’t completely Etch-a-Sketch away the gaffes and extreme statements he’s made to woo the radical Tea Party and Christian right GOP voters in the primaries. And President Obama’s team has the video clips to prove it.

But if Romney has been trying to run against the president for months, the president targeted  Romney by name for the first time  Tuesday, in a barnburner of a political speech. The president has been ratcheting up the rhetoric since at least last September, but he’s in full-throated campaign mode now.

President Obama at Associated Press luncheon in Washington, DC. Photo: C-Span.

His target: Romney’s support for the budget plan of Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee and a nonpareil policy wonk on the Republican side.

Ryan campaigned with Romney on his home turf of Wisconsin, and Romney has endorsed the congressman’s  plan, which caps growth in Medicare (a good thing) and cuts taxes on the wealthiest Americans while slashing domestic programs that primarily benefit the poor (not so good).

In a speech to editors and reporters in Washington, DC (watch the video here and read the transcript here), the president called the Ryan budget a “Trojan horse” that would hurt the poor at the expense of the rich.  ”Disguised as deficit reduction plans, it is really…thinly veiled social Darwinism,” he said. In a real zinger, he said the Ryan budget “makes the Contract with America look like the New Deal.”

But here’s the clincher:

This is not just another run-of-the-mill political debate.  I’ve said it’s the defining issue of our time…It’s why I ran in 2008.  It’s what my presidency has been about. It’s why I’m running again.  I believe this is a make-or-break moment for the middle class, and I can’t remember a time when the choice between competing visions of our future has been so unambiguously clear.

The president and Romney have set the terms on which this election will be contested: laissez-faire free enterprise and small government vs. a system in which government plays an important role in providing a safety net and encouraging investment. It’s the same battle we’ve fought for a generation, with no resolution in sight.

So, game over for the primaries. Let the games begin for the general. And may the best-financed man win. Just kidding.

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