On the heels of decisive primary victories in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C., Tuesday night, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney inched ever closer to closing out his GOP competitors in the race to the nomination.
With 19 nominating victories under his belt, CBS News estimates that he now has more than the half of the necessary delegates on his scorecard, and the former Massachusetts governor increasingly appears poised to take on President Obama in the 2012 election.
In remarks after the polls closed on Tuesday night, all signs suggested that the candidate is already gearing up for that battle.
Addressing rowdy supporters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Romney made scant mention of his Republican primary competitors, focusing his criticism instead on President Obama, whom he cast as a leader too accustomed to "flying around on Air Force One" to be in touch with the American people.
"Under this president's watch, more Americans have lost their jobs than during any other period since the Depression. Millions have lost their homes, a record number of Americans are now living in poverty," Romney said. "It's enough to make you think that years of flying around on Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers telling you that you're great and you're doing a great job, it's enough to make you think that you might become a little out of touch."
Romney's criticism is strikingly similar to comments Vice President Joe Biden made about the former Massachusetts governor last week. In an interview on CBS' "Face the Nation," Bidenthe struggle of the middle class. "Governor Romney's a little out of touch," Biden told anchor Bob Schieffer.
In his remarks Tuesday night, Romney went on to lay out the "different visions" between himself and Mr. Obama -- a product, he said, of differences in "the values we have."
"The different visions we have, I think, are a product of the different lives we've led, the life experiences, the values we have," he said. Romney proceeded to describe his year on the campaign trail, traveling "from student unions to kitchen tables, from factory break rooms to boardrooms."
"I've heard frustration and anger but rarely hopelessness," he added. "A lot of Americans have given up on the president but they haven't thought about giving up. Not on themselves. Not on each other. And not on America."
Romney's comments aren't the only sign that his campaign is looking ahead to November.
The candidate has in recent days made tweaks to his campaign stump speech, critiquing Mr. Obama's handling of the economy rather than addressing his Republican rivals, and targeting the president's record on poverty, unemployment and the housing market. On the sidelines, his campaign is working on developing a long-term strategy for delegate management, delineating each state's allocation process in attempts to both hold on to the delegates it has accumulated and potentially poach some from other Republican candidates as well.
Meanwhile, Romney is slated to begin joint fundraising efforts with the Republican National Committee this week, enabling donors to contribute as much as $75,000 a person rather than $2,500 -- which is the highest amount a single person can give directly to a presidential primary campaign. The move is a sign that the Republican establishment is not only rallying behind Romney, but aggressively looking toward a general election fight that is sure to be costly no matter the nominee.
The Romney campaign also confirmed that it will start to raise money this week for the general election rather than devoting all efforts toward the primary contest.
Still, Republican strategist Trey Hardin argues that the candidate can't afford turn his gaze exclusively toward the general election just yet.
"Romney still has to straddle both contests right now, because even though he is going to be the nominee, that fight is not over yet - and it cannot be neglected," Hardin says. "Just because he's going to get the nomination doesn't mean he's going to get the support of all the conservatives. He still has a lot of work to do to get them to work for him in the fall. I don't think that a big win tonight changes the focus his campaign has to have on the base."
Romney, Hardin says, can't afford to make anything but a "subtle and gradual" shift toward the general election until Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich drop out of the race, which would open the door for all conservatives to move their support to Romney.
"This has been a unique nominating fight," Hardin said. "Santorum and Gingrich - and Santorum for sure - are going to keep the conversation going among conservatives as long as they stay in it." And each of them say they are going to stay in until Romney emerges as the decisive nominee.
A prolonged primary battle can certainly have negative impacts - it creates significant fundraising hurdles and forces a candidate to face sustained negative campaigning from members of his or her own party - but Hardin points to a possible upside for Romney.
"I do believe that this drawn out process does have a silver lining for Romney," he said. "If Romney had sewn up this election three months ago, I think that you would have seen a lot of conservatives just check out and go home never to be heard from again."
"This keeps them engaged," he continued. "The closer they get to November, the more that they're vying for that bigger prize."