Rick Santorum's decision to suspend his presidential campaign Tuesday effectively ended the race for the Republican nomination, giving likely nominee Mitt Romney the opportunity to repair the damage he sustained in the primaries, rally reluctant conservatives behind his candidacy and shift his focus to President Obama.
The general election contest already was taking shape, with the Obama and Romney campaigns engaging each other more directly in the past few weeks.
That will accelerate rapidly, with Americans now looking at a seven-month campaign between two candidates who have strikingly different visions about where to take the country.
Romney has long attempted to paint Obama as a failed president whose policies have slowed the economic recovery while enlarging the government and building up deficits and debt. Obama, in turn, has attacked Romney as a proponent of the policies that drove the nation into the deep recession and as a politician who would protect the wealthiest at the expense of the middle class.
"For Mitt Romney, this race has always been about defeating President Obama, and getting Americans back to work," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said in statement. "From the time that Mitt Romney announced his candidacy, he has run his campaign with the message that President Obama has failed to fix the economy."
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina fired back at Romney, saying: "While calling himself the 'ideal candidate' for the Tea Party, he has promised to return to the same policies that created the economic crisis and have alienated women, middle-class families and Hispanic Americans."
Even before Santorum's announcement, most of the suspense had been drained from the Republican nomination battle -- although not before an improbable run by the former senator from Pennsylvania that resuscitated his political career. Still, his departure spares Romney from a potentially costly and ugly primary campaign in Santorum's home state as well as the possibility of embarrassing defeats in other primaries.
Romney remains well short of the 1,144 delegates required to secure the party's nomination, with former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas still competing. Gingrich vowed anew Tuesday to remain in the race to give conservatives "a real choice" and he appealed to Santorum's supporters to give him a fresh look. But neither the Romney campaign nor most Republicans regard Gingrich or Paul as serious obstacles to Romney's efforts to wrap up the nomination quickly.
Romney advisers would say that, despite Santorum's departure from the race, their first priority is to win the remaining primaries and accumulate delegates. In reality, they consider the nomination over. Other priorities are more urgent, given the problems Romney has had throughout the nomination battle and the challenges he would face in a fall campaign against the president.
The former governor was forced to the right during the bruising primary fight, leaving him weakened for the general election campaign among some key demographic groups. He is far behind Obama among female voters, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll. He also faces potentially major problems among Hispanics because of his positions on immigration and the harsh language he used to describe them during the GOP debates.
Romney will now devote most of his energy to drawing contrasts with Obama, free of some of the dissonance generated during the intraparty warfare during the primaries.