WASHINGTON -- Mitt Romney's wins in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia on Tuesday thrusts his campaign into the general election mode, having to catch up to the Obama re-election operation while keeping an eye on Rick Santorum.
The Obama White House and the re-election team have been gradually dropping any pretense about the obvious escalation of campaigning, stepping up attacks on Romney while framing November messages. That was evident in President Barack Obama's Tuesday address before a group of news executives and three recent speeches by Vice President Joe Biden about the auto industry recovery, Medicare and manufacturing.
The Obama campaign on Monday started running an anti-Romney spot in six battleground states: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Nevada, Ohio and Virginia, hitting Romney for having "stood with Big Oil -- for their tax breaks, attacking higher mileage standards and renewables."
The March 20 Illinois primary proved to be the pivot point where Romney's decisive win tamped down talk of a brokered or contested convention, finished off Newt Gingrich and made it much tougher for Santorum to argue he's got any chance to clinch the nomination.
Romney's Tuesday trifecta victories mean Romney's Boston-based campaign will transition from just running in primaries to putting together a national organization.
The Romney campaign, I'm told, will be opening more field offices, hiring more people and, most important, start raising money for November. Almost all of the money Romney has collected has been just for the primary -- an enormous expense the Chicago-headquartered Obama team did not have.
I'm also told that after Tuesday, wealthy Romney backers will be asked to start making big donations to SuperPACs backing Romney -- where there are no limits to giving -- as the campaign itself directly starts to partner with the Republican National Committee to land the kind of mega-donations Obama's team has been collecting for months in a partnership with the Democratic National Committee.
After Romney's Tuesday wins, watch for Republicans to continue to coalesce around Romney while Santorum is making what could be his last stand in his home state Pennsylvania, with an April 24 primary.
Santorum plans to spend most of the weeks before that primary in Pennsylvania -- he has no other choice -- freeing Romney to concede a home state advantage and focus on Delaware, New York and Rhode Island, states that also have April 24 votes. Santorum has said he will stay in the race until Romney gets the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination, which still could be months away.
The methodical Romney camp will not ignore Santorum, and Santorum said in his Tuesday concession speech from Pennsylvania that he is braced for more negative hits.
While Santorum runs a lean operation, especially compared to Romney, the reality is Romney is building a national campaign; Obama's troops have been camped in battleground states for months while Santorum's election world has shrunk to Pennsylvania.
Meanwhile, the Romney team -- in some very discrete precincts -- has started pondering vice presidential picks, with the names most often mentioned, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Ohio Sen. Rob Portman, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, South Dakota Sen. John Thune and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley.