Steven Senne, Associated Press
A political tip sheet for the rest of us outside the Washington Beltway, for Monday, March 19, 2012:
ROMNEY'S OBAMA ARGUMENT: An increasingly confident Mitt Romney called President Barack Obama an "economic lightweight" as he looked beyond Tuesday's Illinois primary to a general election showdown with the incumbent Democrat. Courting voters in Obama's home state, Romney acknowledged that the economy has been moving in the right direction with hundreds of thousands of jobs being created, the unemployment rate dropping and consumer confidence rising. However, Romney suggested that all the progress has been in spite of the president's policies. "The economy always comes back after a recession of course," the Republican front-runner said. "There's never been one that we didn't recover from. The problem is this one has been deeper than it needed to be and a slower recovery than it should have been." That line of argument could well be a preview of how Romney will counter Obama's contention that the economy has been getting better because of his efforts.
SANTORUM POINTS TO HEALTHCARE: Rick Santorum is keeping his focus on Mitt Romney as he campaigns in Illinois, arguing that nominating the former Massachusetts governor would deprive the GOP of a defining issue — healthcare — to use against President Barack Obama in the November election. The argument over how so-called Romneycare begat Obamacare is central to Santorum's criticism of Romney as the GOP nominee. While the former Pennsylvania senator has all but conceded that he cannot earn enough delegates to win the nomination, he says he's in the primary contest for the long haul because Romney is a weak front-runner. "He can't be the nominee because he would take away from the Republican Party in this crucial election, the most important in your lifetime, he would take away the central issue in this campaign," Santorum said while campaigning in Illinois. "He is uniquely disqualified to go and make the case against Obamacare because he developed the blueprint for Obamacare."
PASSION GAP: Mitt Romney may lead in delegates and Rick Santorum might have momentum, but neither of the two leading Republican presidential candidates is having an easy time exciting even his own voters. Out of a dozen states where voters in the GOP contest have been polled, most Romney voters have said they strongly favor him in just five of those states. A majority of Santorum voters felt that committed to him in only four of 11 states where he was on the ballot and voters were surveyed. When it comes to winning fervent devotion from his own supporters, both men trail former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul. Republican operatives express concern about Romney and Santorum. They say the figures raise questions about how quickly the GOP will be able to end its drawn-out slugfest and begin generating voter enthusiasm for a nominee to challenge President Barack Obama in November.
OBAMA'S FUNDRAISING: February was a good month for President Barack Obama's 2012 fundraising effort, though not nearly as good as his February 2008 haul. Obama collected $45 million for his re-election bid last month, nearly twice as much as the $23 million per month he raised on average during the final three months of 2011 and more than the $29.1 million he raised in January. Still, that's far short of the $56 million he raised during the same period when he was seeking the Democratic nomination against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Obama campaign officials have implored supporters to donate money and get involved, pointing to Republican-leaning super PACs expected to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat the president. The Republican Party take on Obama's fundraising? The president is "having a hard time convincing voters he deserves another term," says Kirsten Kukowski, a Republican National Committee spokeswoman.
AP DELEGATE COUNT
Updated after the Puerto Rican GOP reported that Mitt Romney had won all 20 delegates in its Sunday primary:
—Mitt Romney: 521
—Rick Santorum: 253
—Newt Gingrich: 136
—Ron Paul: 50
HE SAID WHAT?
—"There are dramatic differences between me and President Obama. ... I'm not an economic lightweight. President Obama is." — Romney, campaigning in Springfield, Ill.
— "He can't be the nominee because he would take away from the Republican Party in this crucial election, the most important in your lifetime, he would take away the central issue in this campaign. He is uniquely disqualified to go and make the case against Obamacare because he developed the blueprint for Obamacare." — Santorum, campaigning in Rockford, Ill.
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