On the heels of a commanding victory in the Illinois primary, and in light of a steadily expanding lead in the delegate count, Mitt Romney is shifting the thrust of his campaign. He intends to spend less time on the stump answering his Republican rivals and more time raising money and otherwise preparing in earnest for a general election battle against President Obama -- one that could make the turbulent GOP primary fight appear tame in comparison.
While Romney has on previous occasions appeared close to wrapping up his party's nomination, only to see Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum, by turns, re-emerge as credible challengers, there is now a collective sense among the former Massachusetts governor's staff that this time is different.
According to a source with knowledge of the meeting, a team of top Romney advisers convened in Boston this week to set in motion a long-planned delegate management procedure designed to ensure that the delegates the front-runner has earned thus far stay in his column.
The high-level meeting's participants included former Utah Gov. Mike Leavitt, longtime Romney confidant Bob White, senior adviser Ron Kaufman, general counsel Katie Biber, political director Rich Beeson and deputy political director Todd Cranney.
During the day-long discussions, Biber mapped out the legal intricacies of each state's delegate selection process, and the campaign's political advisers outlined strategies to possibly poach delegates from other GOP candidates, according to the source.
While Romney left it to his brain trust to position him for a clinching blow, the candidate's unofficial travel schedule demonstrated the extent to which the campaign is moving into a new stage.
A day after earning the endorsement of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush this week, Romney trekked to Capitol Hill to court key Republican leaders, including House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint (who endorsed Romney in 2008 and praised him enthusiastically on Thursday -- though he stopped short of formally backing him again).
(...) After a brief campaign swing through Louisiana -- a state whose primary he is widely expected to lose to Santorum on Saturday -- Romney is set to embark on a week-long fundraising swing through California and Texas, which will include a pit-stop in Los Angeles to appear Tuesday on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."
And with Romney likely to build his delegate lead next month, his campaign is preparing to increase the volume on its calls for the remaining GOP contenders not to hinder his chances in the fall.
(...) The pro-Romney super PAC Restore Our Future has reportedly purchased over $2 million worth of advertising time in Wisconsin, and his campaign launched a positive TV ad blitz there that ignores the other candidates and focuses instead on Romney's own economic bona fides.
Romney is likely to make a brief campaign swing through the state following his week-longfundraising blitz.
(...) As the calendar flips to April, the Romney campaign's newest balancing act will be appearing confident but not presumptuous, while also sounding the alarm about the monumental task of taking on a well-organized incumbent president.