MENDENHALL, Pa. — The 2012 presidential general election has begun. It won't be pretty.
Tuesday marked Day One, in essence, of the contest between the two virtually certain nominees, Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama. Rick Santorum's departure removed the last meaningful bump from Romney's path to the GOP nomination. Romney and Obama wasted no time in portraying the voters' choice in dire, sometimes starkly personal terms.
With Obama saddled with a still-ailing economy and a divisive health care law, and Romney riding a wave of blistering TV ads, the fall election is unlikely to dwell on "hope," ''change" and other uplifting themes from four years ago. Much of the nation's ire then was aimed at departing President George W. Bush, and Obama had no extensive record to defend.
The landscape is much different now. Americans face nearly seven months of hard-hitting jabs and counterpunches between the two parties' standard-bearers.
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor making his second presidential bid, attacked Obama with gusto Tuesday in his two public events that followed Santorum's surprising announcement.
Campaigning in Pennsylvania, where an April 24 GOP primary is suddenly less important than its likely role as a battleground state this fall, Romney portrayed Obama as a weak leader who apologizes for America's greatness and prefers European-style socialism over robust free enterprise. Obama's allies call such claims nonsense.
"The right course for America is not to divide America," Romney told a GOP dinner gathering in Mendenhall, near Philadelphia. "That's what he's doing," he said of Obama. "His campaign is all about finding Americans to blame and attack, and find someone to tax more, someone who isn't giving, isn't paying their fair share."
He said Obama prefers "a government-centered society."
Obama, campaigning in Florida, said the choice this fall will be as stark as in the 1964 contest between Lyndon Johnson and Barry Goldwater, which resulted in one of the biggest Democratic landslides ever. That election included dramatic and controversial moments, such as Goldwater's defense of "extremism in the defense of liberty" and a devastating TV ad suggesting a Goldwater presidency would lead to nuclear war.
Obama didn't mention Romney by name. His top aides have shown less restraint, however.
Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement after Santorum's withdrawal: "It's no surprise that Mitt Romney finally was able to grind down his opponents under an avalanche of negative ads. But neither he nor his special interest allies will be able to buy the presidency with their negative attacks. The more the American people see of Mitt Romney, the less they like him."
Other Obama campaign officials have mocked Romney's wealth and called him out of touch with average Americans.
Romney and his allies, including a potent super PAC, have proved their ability to raise millions of dollars to air brutally effective attack ads, which crippled Santorum and Newt Gingrich in the GOP primary contests. Obama will raise many millions, too, and few doubt that he will hit Romney hard.
On Tuesday, Romney made clear that he will go after Obama's character as well as his record. In speeches in Mendenhall and Wilmington, Del., Romney said Obama isn't merely inept at economic policy, he actively dislikes business.
Obama "is clearly trying to hide from us what he intends to do," Romney said in Wilmington. "He's going to hide. And it's my job to seek."
Romney made similar remarks last month. Now, with Santorum off the stage and Gingrich and Ron Paul hardly a factor, there are no intra-party distractions to dilute such comments. Romney and Obama are fully engaged, one-on-one, at a much earlier stage than in 2008, when Obama had to parry Democratic rival Hillary Rodham Clinton throughout the summer before fully turning to Republican John McCain.
Even then, Bush's unpopularity helped fuel Obama's campaign and deflected some of the anti-GOP sentiment away from the actual nominee.
This time, the incumbent president is on the ballot, with unemployment above 8 percent. The tea party, which didn't exist in 2008, is a potent and unpredictable force.
And Romney suddenly is free of meaningful primary worries. That leaves him able to focus the full force of his fundraising and campaigning skills against Obama.