RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This past week marked the unofficial start of the general election for President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Former Republican Senator Rick Santorum's departure from the presidential race cleared the way for Romney and signaled a shift to a new phase of the campaign. For more, we are joined by NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: OK. So, with Santorum out of the race, Mitt Romney finally gets that Etch A Sketch moment that his aide indiscreetly mentioned in an interview last month.
LIASSON: Well, yeah. That was probably a terrible way to put it, and it's much harder to do this kind of pivot in the era of YouTube. But he will get a bit of a do-over, and Romney now needs to find ways to repair the damage from the primary campaigns with a couple of key groups of voters - Hispanics, where he's trailing the president by, in some polls, up to 40 points; conservatives, who he never could quite inspire during the primaries - you saw him giving a speech to the NRA the other day - and, most importantly, women.
MARTIN: Women - let's talk about women voters and the war of words essentially that erupted last week, which started when Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen said this on CNN. Let's take a listen:
HILARY ROSEN: What you have is, is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, well, you know, my wife tells me what women really care about are economic issues. And when I listen to my wife, that's what I'm hearing. Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life.
MARTIN: OK. And that brought this reply from Ann Romney, speaking on Fox News.
ANN ROMNEY: My career choice was to be a mother, and I think all of us need to know that we need to respect choices that women make.
MARTIN: OK, Mara. What do you make of this exchange, and really the quick reaction from both campaigns?
LIASSON: Well, the reaction from the Obama campaign, of course, was to distance themselves as fast as possible from Hilary Rosen's remarks. They don't want to be seen as dissing stay-at-home mothers. And I do think that Rosen violated rule no. 1 in politics, which is: never, ever, ever criticize the candidate's spouse. But I think the larger question is whether this misstep by an Obama supporter will help Romney close the gender gap.
President Obama is beating him overall with women by 20 points, but with college-educated women, he's ahead by almost 30 points. So, I think the gender gap is going to stay; Romney still has a lot of work to do on that. But this clearly was not a good exchange for the Obama campaign.
MARTIN: OK. So, I want to get to the economy, Mara, which has been the focus of both campaigns. Are you hearing anything new or different from the candidates or should we expect to hear some kind of turn they make as they move towards the general election?
LIASSON: Well, I think both of the candidates are getting their general election themes set. You're going to have a very, very negative, very personal, very ideological campaign. This is a campaign between a vulnerable incumbent and a weak challenger.
So, on the president's side, you hear him talking about Romney in personal terms - he's an out-of-touch plutocrat. But he also talks about it in terms of ideological terms - social Darwinism, Romney supports policies that will help the wealthy over the middle class. The goal for the president is to make this as stark a choice as possible. He said the other day this is going to be the biggest choice since Goldwater-Johnson in 1964. The Obama camp knows that to win the referendum - and reelection campaign is a referendum on the incumbent - they have to make this into a choice.
For Romney's part, he's moved away from talking almost exclusively about his biography and his resume. He is getting more ideological too. He accused the president of supporting a government-centered society. And, of course, he also wants to keep the focus on the economy, on unemployment and on the growing debt.
MARTIN: So Mara, you mentioned that Mitt Romney has come out a bit damaged from the protracted primary, but how damaged? I mean, is this something he could overcome?
LIASSON: Well, it's something he's working hard to overcome. As the primary went on, as it more and more like a circular firing squad in the Republican Party, his negatives went up, especially among independents. We mentioned that he has a lot of work to do with Hispanics, with women, also with conservatives in his own party, who he never won decisively.
But the big difference for Romney and challengers in past is that he's not broke. He's battered, but not broke. Along with the Republican-supporting superPACs, I think he'll be able to raise as much, if not more money, than the president, and those superPACs are going to start battering President Obama very soon. So, I think the playing field is very even this time.
MARTIN: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Thanks, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.