After his resounding 15-point victory in Florida, Mitt Romney has taken a giant leap toward securing the Republican presidential nomination.
The nomination is now Romney's to lose as he heads into February and some very friendly turf in upcoming contests in Nevada, Colorado, Arizona, and his native Michigan.
But Romney won't be able to coast. If he is to wrap up the battle for the nomination in a position of strength by Super Tuesday (and that is the goal of his campaign), he will need to accomplish all of the items on his hefty to-do list.
1. Assuage conservatives: Newt Gingrich likes to refer to Romney as a "Massachusetts moderate" or a "Massachusetts liberal," in an effort to sow real disenchantment with Romney among very conservative Republican voters. Despite Romney's sweeping victory, 41 percent of Florida GOP primary voters said Romney is not conservative enough on the issues, according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research on behalf of the Associated Press and the five television networks.
2. Boost his favorability: The intensified and, at times, brutally negative Republican nomination battle has taken its toll on Romney's standing with voters. In a Washington Post/ABC News poll released last week, Romney had his highest unfavorable ratings ever recorded. Of those polled, 49 percent viewed him unfavorably compared to only 31 percent who viewed him favorably. If Romney doesn't reverse this trend soon, he'll have a much deeper hole to climb out of when the general election begins in earnest.
3. Straddle successfully: As Romney made clear in his Florida victory speech, he is setting his sights on President Obama. He did the same on the night of his New Hampshire victory, only to be snapped back into the thick of a battle against Gingrich in South Carolina and Florida.
Romney's big February challenge is to successfully straddle the need to run both a general election campaign against Obama while simultaneously keeping his foot on Gingrich's neck in their intra-party contest. Romney spent much of 2011 calibrating that precise straddle with great skill, but in the thick of the fight and with attacks coming from all directions it proved much harder for him to prosecute both cases in January.
4. Quietly nudge: This task requires the most artistry from Romney and, more important, from his advisers and top surrogates. As the economy continues to show spurts of growth and with President Obama fully engaged in campaign mode, Romney can ill afford to lose any time building his case against the incumbent. And, yet, the remaining Republican hopefuls will demand that his time be spent paying attention to them.
The Romney campaign needs to be ready to open a constructive conversation with Newt Gingrich about how his pledge to continue all the way to Tampa might hurt the party's chances at winning the White House. And yet the last thing Romney would like to have happen too quickly is for Rick Santorum to leave the race and have that embolden Gingrich.
Romney's ability to successfully check through his to-do list between now and Super Tuesday will tell us a lot about what kind of general election candidate he is likely to be in the fall.
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