By Jackie Kucinich, Catalina Camia and Richard Wolf
GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- Game on.
Rick Santorum electrified the Republican presidential race in January's Iowa caucuses with those words, but Tuesday he declared his race "over" and left the playing field to Mitt Romney.
After a sometimes-bitter primary fight, it will be Romney's task to put the Grand Old Party together again, merging its suburban moderates and social conservatives, repairing a widening gender gap and erasing the image his opponents painted of him as a rich guy out of touch with middle-class America.
Officially, Romney still has to dispatch Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, who have yet to concede, but he has already turned his focus to President Obama, whose re-election campaign has been running against Romney for a full year.
As a president who began his term with 65% approval ratings but is now mired below 50%, Obama offers a prime target, as he grapples with a struggling economy and the high price of gas.
"The sad fact of 2012 if you're running for president is the country doesn't like anybody," says Ari Fleischer, former press secretary for President George W. Bush.
Still, Obama appears to begin the general election season with a head start. A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll last month showed the president winning by 9 percentage points among registered voters in 12 key swing states.
While Romney has been battling Santorum and others from Hawaii to Puerto Rico, Obama has faced a clear field, holding some 200 fundraisers for himself and others -- including three on Tuesday -- and sprinkling official events with partisan swipes.
Speaking Tuesday in Florida on his plan to raise taxes on millionaires, Obama ridiculed "folks who were peddling these trickle-down theories, including members of Congress and some people who are running for a certain office right now who shall not be named."
Republicans counter that on policy matters ranging from the economy and jobs to gas prices, his administration has failed.
The primaries have taken a toll on the former Massachusetts governor. A recent CNN poll found Romney viewed favorably by 37% of Americans. Since 1996, eventual nominees of both parties were favored by 53% to 56% of the electorate at this time of the year.
"The more the American people see of Mitt Romney, the less they like him and the less they trust him," Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said in a statement.
But now Romney has seven months to refocus the campaign on the economy, rather than the more divisive issues of family and faith that drove Santorum.
Romney told supporters at a campaign event Tuesday night in Wilmington, Del., that it "has been a good day for me."
He said he spoke to Santorum in the morning. "We exchanged our thoughts about going forward, and we both had a great deal of interest in seeing the country taken in a very different path," Romney said. "He has made an important contribution to the political process ... and he will continue to have a major role in the Republican Party."
'A time for prayer and thought'
Santorum suspended his campaign with 285 delegates, one-fourth of the 1,144 needed to win the GOP nomination, according to the Associated Press. Romney leads the field with 661; Gingrich, the former House speaker, has 136 and Paul, a Texas congressman, 51.
The former Pennsylvania senator, 53, on Tuesday focused first on Bella, his 3-year-old daughter who was hospitalized on Friday and released Monday night. Bella has a rare genetic disorder called Trisomy 18 and has been hospitalized several times during the campaign.
Her condition caused Santorum and his wife to think about "the role that we have as parents in her life and with the rest of our family, and this was a time for prayer and thought." He said he and his family decided over the weekend to suspend the campaign.
Santorum also faced a cold political reality: Although polls in late February and early March showed him with a huge lead over Romney in Pennsylvania's April 24 primary, recent polling showed the race there close, and Romney was prepared to spend $2 million on TV ads.
Santorum's decision marks the end of an unpredictable ride that began more than a year ago when launched his long-shot bid. Despite primary victories in several states, Santorum has been unable to translate votes from Tea Party members, the most conservative voters, and evangelicals into a coalition that could sustain him.
Long a favorite of social conservatives, Santorum appealed to voters with his view that the federal government under Obama was trampling on the rights of people -- whether it was through the national health care law or a proposed rule that would have required religious institutions to provide access to insurance coverage for contraceptives.
The Gettysburg speech looked nothing like the "Rally for Rick" it was briefly called on Santorum's Facebook page. Inside a small hotel conference room stood a lectern and two rows of chairs for the media, while a few onlookers crammed into a corner to watch the 13-minute speech.
Santorum pledged that he was "not done fighting" and did not mention Romney, saying only that he would help Republicans defeat President Obama, win House seats and take back the Senate.
Santorum supporters praised his campaign's commitment to conservative issues and for making sure they remained a critical part of the political conversation.
"No matter what, he has definitely shown you don't have to be the most well-known or the best-funded" candidate to make an impact, Iowa Secretary of State Matt Schultz said.
Neither Obama nor Romney enters the next phase of the campaign with particularly glowing poll numbers.
If the election was simply a referendum on Obama, Democrats would have plenty of reason to worry. His approval ratings have been floating in the mid-40% range for several months, and Gallup pegged him at 46% Tuesday.
The gender gap
Obama leads Romney by an average of 5.3 percentage points, according to data compiled by RealClearPolitics from six recent national polls. And significantly, he loses by 18 points among registered women voters in the swing states.
"The biggest Republican problem today is the gender gap," Fleischer says -- a problem he blames on Santorum's focus on contraception and conservative radio commentator Rush Limbaugh's subsequent verbal attack on a Georgetown University student over that issue.
Another problem for Romney: his reputation for changing positions on issues. A key Romney adviser said in March that the campaign's strategy would shift for the general election like an Etch a Sketch, a comment his opponents jumped on.
"Romney has so much ground to make up because of the portrayal of him as someone who has flip-flopped and who has been an opportunist on issues," says David Bonior, the former House Democratic whip who ran John Edwards' presidential campaign in 2008.
"The key is he has not been able to make a direct, emotional connection with the American public," says Republican strategist Ron Bonjean.
Santorum's departure allows the Romney campaign to move advertising dollars and staff out of primary states and into states that will be battlegrounds in the fall, such as Florida. The Romney campaign released an Internet video Tuesday blaming Obama for the Sunshine State's high unemployment rate.
"For Mitt Romney, this race has always been about defeating President Obama, and getting Americans back to work," said Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul. "Mitt Romney will continue his campaign to make Barack Obama a one-term president and restore the promise of America that will turn the economy around and put Americans back to work."
One of Romney's immediate tasks, based on recent polling, is to try to capture some of Santorum's support among women. "One of the things that Rick Santorum had going for him that women really liked was his authenticity," says Penny Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, a conservative group. "He had such a great story with his family; we felt like we knew him."
Focus on fundraising
In the end, though, Santorum was outgunned. Romney raised $75.6 million through the end of February, and Santorum struggled to compete financially. He raised just $15.7 million during the same period and ended his campaign Tuesday with an emotional plea to supporters to help retire his debt.
"I am planning to do everything in my power to bring a change about in the White House," Santorum wrote. "But I cannot be free to focus on helping defeat him with this burden," asking his backers to consider contributions of as little as $25. His most recent financial reports showed he had more than $922,000 in debt at the end of February, even before an expensive round of Super Tuesday primaries in early March.
Obama and the Democratic National Committee had raised a combined $300 million through the end of February. However, the Republican National Committee, which started the election cycle deeply mired in debt, also has raised more than $110 million in the past 15 months and plans to report to the Federal Election Commission later this month that it has $30 million in cash reserves. That includes a $21.6 million "presidential trust" available to the party's nominee.
By month's end, the RNC will open offices in nine states and has spent months manning phone banks in Florida, North Carolina and Virginia to identify swing and independent voters it hopes to persuade to support the GOP candidate in November.
In a fundraising e-mail to supporters late Tuesday afternoon, Gingrich showed no signs of dropping out, calling himself "the last remaining conservative" in the race. He was seeking 12,000 donations by midnight.