A 2012 campaign that had been expected to largely center on President Obama's management of the economy has expanded to broader terrain as the general election battle takes shape.
That was evident in Mitt Romney's speech Wednesday to a group of newspaper reporters and editors, which marked the Republican presidential frontrunner’s first step toward a campaign directly aimed at Obama, and not Republican foes. The speech, delivered 24 hours after Obama addressed the same group, was intended for a general election audience just as much as for voters in the remaining Republican primaries
"With all the challenges the nation faces, this is not the time for President Obama's hide and seek campaign," Romney told the audience.
The speech was meant to cast Obama as opaque in his plans for the country should he win a second term -- not just as it relates to the economy, but on energy, foreign policy, and a litany of other issues.
It was just a preliminary offering by Romney as the general election begins to get underway. But it also served as a reminder that the campaign won't just be about the economy, which has shown tentative signs of improvement.
It was, in essence, a speech recasting Romney's message for the general election. And that message was far broader than the stump speech focused almost exclusively on the economy that the former Massachusetts governor had practiced for months.
Obama on Tuesday addressed the group and delivered remarks that were some of the most political this year. He launched an attack on the House Republican budget authored by Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan, and by extension, Romney.
"This congressional Republican budget is something different altogether. It is a Trojan Horse," Obama said in his remarks. "Disguised as deficit reduction plans, it is really an attempt to impose a radical vision on our country. It is thinly veiled social Darwinism."
In response, Romney not only defended the Ryan budget from "straw men" attacks by the president, but also welcomed to stack up the Republican plan and Romney's own proposals against the president's.
"I’m offering a clear choice and a different path," he said. "Unlike the president, I have a record that I am proud to run on."
Romney was happy to make the Ryan plan a topic of debate this election cycle, alongside issues of energy and foreign policy – suggested by Romney’s attacks on Solyndra and Obama’s recent hot mic encounter with the Russian president.
The Republican argument against Obama, in short, has evolved into a broader portfolio. The election won’t just be fought over whether the president has a a winning or losing record on the economy, an increasingly tall order for the GOP given indicators pointing toward an economic recovery, albeit slowly.
That’s a much more expansive vision for the 2012 fight than Romney had described for much of the campaign.
Romney spoke almost exclusively of his business acumen vis-à-vis Obama as his foremost qualifying trait for much of the primary.
“I also think it's helpful to have a leader in Washington who knows how to bring people together and who understands in his heart and in his core how to make the economy work for the American people,” he said Dec. 16 in Iowa.
He hit his rival, Rick Santorum, in late February for arriving late to a realization that “this is going to be a campaign about the economy.”
Romney hardly jettisoned his attacks on Obama’s economic stewardship in today’s speech, accusing the president of having enacted policies that slowed the pace of the recovery.
But the former governor’s attacks weren’t solely based on the presumption that the election would turn on voters’ judgment of Obama’s first four years in office. Romney’s speech, instead, focused on the next four.
“Unlike President Obama, you don’t have to wait until after the election to find out what I believe in – or what my plans are,” he said. “I have a pro-growth agenda that will get our economy back on track – and get Americans back to work.”