The 2012 GOP presidential primary has grown more contentious in recent weeks.
Among other things, Tim Pawlenty and Rick Santorum have questioned Michele Bachmann's legislative experience. Bachmann has suggested Pawlenty is as liberal as President Obama. Santorum has trashed Jon Huntsman for not being a true social conservative.
And they all have taken aim at frontrunner Mitt Romney, slamming the health care plan he passed as governor of Massachusetts and questioning his record on jobs. But Romney has largely ignored his rivals' criticism, instead keeping his focus exclusively on President Obama.
Since June, Romney has released at least 10 web ads, all of them critical of Obama's economic record. In campaign appearances, Romney has rarely mentioned his GOP rivals and has instead routinely cast the race as a choice between him and Obama.
But that's not the only sign that Romney is running his campaign as if he's already the GOP nominee.
While his Republican competitors have focused their campaigning largely on early primary states like New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina, Romney has expanded his battleground, visiting states that could be crucial swing votes in next year's election.
In recent weeks, Romney has held campaign events in Pennsylvania, California and Ohio, where just yesterday he toured a local factory and accused Obama of not doing enough to preserve manufacturing jobs in the state. The stop scored Romney crucial mentions in local media--as well as live coverage on some of the national cable TV networks.
Another hint that Romney is thinking beyond the primary: He was caught musing about potential running mates at a fundraiser in Virginia earlier this week.
The Romney campaign is quick to push back on the perception that the ex-governor is already running his campaign as though he's won the GOP nomination. A Romney aide, who declined to be named when discussing the inner-workings of the campaign, told The Ticket that most of Romney's public appearances outside of the early primary states have been tied to fundraisers in the area and said the ex-governor will spend most of the fall stumping in states like New Hampshire.
"He's not taking anything for granted," the aide told The Ticket.
But the aide acknowledged that Romney is benefitting from getting an early start in states that could ultimately decide the winner of the 2012 election. After all, Obama has focused most of his presidential travel on swing states like Ohio in recent months. Whoever is the ultimate GOP nominee will be facing off against a formidable campaign that has already began to invest millions of dollars into get out the vote efforts more than a year before Election Day.
But Romney also faces the danger of potentially alienating Republican voters in key primary states should there be a perception that he already believes he's got the nomination in the bag--even if he does hold a major lead in many key early primary polls.
Speaking in Ohio Wednesday, Romney seemed to go out of his way to acknowledge the GOP race is far from over. After lambasting Obama's economic policies, he acknowledged a one-on-one contest with the president is still not a sure thing.
"I've got to win the primaries first. That's job one," Obama said, per the Associated Press. "Then comes job two, which is winning the general."
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