With Rick Santorum's withdrawal from the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Mitt Romney is now, finally, who he has been saying he is all along: the inevitable nominee. Romney has been acting the part since the outset of his campaign. Now, with an insurmountable delegate lead, he can play it with conviction.
Santorum's withdrawal should cause most Republicans to breathe a sigh of relief. It means the end of divisive intraparty campaigning that featured Romney and Santorum and their surrogates firing ugly televised attacks at each other in primary states. Those attack ads and debate barbs undercut both candidates in the minds of voters and have dominated the news for months, to the delight of President Obama and his supporters.
The only Republicans who will lament the end of this primary warfare are the diehard supporters of Santorum or Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul who believe that Romney is not conservative enough on either money or social issues, or they do not trust him because of his Mormon faith. Some of the questions about Romney's conservatism are legitimate, given his support while governor for the Massachusetts health care reform that became a model for Obamacare and his shifting stance on abortion, to name just two examples.
By contrast, the doubts based on Romney's Mormon faith are not legitimate, any more than were those of the bigots who distrusted JFK because of his Roman Catholicism. This is doubly ironic in the context of the campaign for the GOP nomination because Santorum is Catholic.
Now that Santorum has withdrawn, Romney will be free to focus his fire exclusively on President Obama, a Romney campaign tactic that has been derailed repeatedly this year by GOP internecine warfare. Presumably, the Romney campaign also can husband its financial resources for use in the general election race. There already are reports that the Romney campaign will begin almost immediately to coordinate more closely with the national party's political strategists.
What this means for most American voters is that an already too long campaign will appear even longer.
Santorum's effect on the campaign has been considerable. He got much further with fewer financial resources than almost anyone expected, and he won some upset victories. But by focusing repeatedly on his extreme positions on contraception and abortion, he also alienated many women voters from his party. If Romney loses in November, Santorum will have played a role.