NEW YORK (CNNMoney) — After hammering Republican rivals for months, Mitt Romney is gearing up for the main event and turning his full attention to President Obama.
The two camps are now openly trading broadsides — and the first salvos are over the economy, a topic likely to be at the fore of political discourse until Election Day.
Obama linked Romney to the budget plan favored by House Republicans on Tuesday, calling it “thinly veiled social Darwinism.” It was the first time the president has mentioned Romney’s name in a campaign speech.
Romney responded in kind, arguing that the president’s policies have “made it harder for our economy.”
Months on the campaign trail have provided a preview of the arguments Romney will make in the general election, but a shift in rhetoric in recent days has lifted the curtain on a new set of ideas and points the likely nominee will deploy against the incumbent president.
The government’s role: Romney has long argued that the federal government has significantly overstepped its traditional role, and that the central goal of a Romney presidency would be to pare back the size and activities of the federal apparatus.
The former governor of Massachusetts presented his latest articulation of this idea in a victory speech Tuesday night after sweeping Republican primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
“The president transformed America, and he spent the last four years laying the foundation for a new government-centered society,” Romney said. “I will spend the next four years rebuilding the foundation of an opportunity society led by free people and free enterprises.”
The phrase “government-centered society” is new — and a neat encapsulation of a broader theme. If elected, Romney has promised to repeal Obama’s signature health care law, and roll back regulations that he says are threatening American businesses.
The middle class: Romney has also struck a more populist tone in recent days, portraying Obama as an out of touch elitist who does not understand — or feel — the pain of a weak economy.
On Tuesday, Romney said that Obama has spent years “flying around in Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers.”
“It’s enough to make you think you might become a little out of touch,” Romney charged. “And that’s what has happened.”
If history is any guide, Romney might have difficulty painting Obama as an out-of-touch elitist. After all, Romney’s opponents spent much of the spring and winter hammering him with the exact same charge.
Gas prices: Romney is also making a habit of pointing to rising gas prices as a symbol of Obama’s failure.
He has called for the firing or resignations of what he labeled the “gas hike trio” of top energy and environment officials in the administration.
“There’s no question” that Obama is to blame for higher gas prices, Romney has said, adding that the president wanted higher energy costs to help speed the transition from oil and other fossil fuels.
Should gas prices continue to rise over the summer months, Romney may well continue to make this argument — despite the fact that most experts say the president has little control over pump prices in the near-term.
Experience: Romney has frequently touted his business acumen, and describes himself as someone who understands how the economy works. The implication, of course, is that Obama does not.
Romney hasn’t been mentioning his time at Bain Capital as frequently as he once did, but the candidate may well lean on his private sector experience in the months ahead as a way of drawing a contrast with Obama.
“The ironic tragedy is that the community organizer who wanted to help those that were hurt by a plant closing became the president on whose watch more jobs have been lost than any times since the Great Depression,” Romney said Tuesday night.
Economic recovery: With Election Day still months away, perhaps the biggest variable in the campaign rhetoric equation is the economy itself.
“There is no question that under this president, this recovery has been the most tepid, the most weak, the most painful since the beginning of our recorded economic history,” Romney said Tuesday. “And I’m including the Great Depression.”
But support for that argument is starting to wane. The major stock indices went on a tear in the first quarter, and the unemployment rate has dipped to 8.3%. Another reading is scheduled to be released on Friday.
A continuation of the unemployment trend would be welcome news for the White House, as Romney has acknowledged in recent weeks that the economy is improving.
Continued improvement would force Romney to make a counterfactual argument on the economy, essentially a “what if” question. Instead of hammering Obama for his oversight of a stubbornly anemic and stagnant recovery, a period of rapid growth might necessitate Romney changing his rhetoric to: The recovery could have been stronger, sooner.