“Rick Santorum’s decision Tuesday to suspend his campaign effectively ends the GOP nomination fight. But it doesn’t mark the start of the general election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. That contest has long been under way. Mr. Obama’s speech to the Associated Press last week and two appearances in Florida on Tuesday provide a glimpse of the low road the president and his campaign likely will take.

“He will distort beyond recognition his opponent’s arguments. For example, he explained to news executives at the AP that Republicans want to ‘convert more of our investments in education and research and health care into tax cuts—especially for the wealthy.’ Actually, no one has suggested that.

“No honest differences are possible with Mr. Obama. He will impugn the motives of any who disagree with him.”

“Now, in the face of mounting attacks from Democrats and the Obama campaign, Mr. Romney is taking steps to address [the] gender gap head on. In the past week, his campaign has devised a three-pronged strategy, which it finalized Tuesday night, advisers familiar with the internal discussions said. They will try to debunk the notion that Mr. Romney’s policies have hurt women, turn the criticism back on Mr. Obama and outline how they believe women have suffered under his administration, and brand those issues in a memorable way…

“As the Romney campaign pivots to the general election, his aides will reintroduce him to voters, warming up his image by emphasizing his role as a devoted father and husband. Mr. Romney’s wife, Ann, has already made several Web videos that feature her reminiscences, along with gauzy family photos; voters are likely to see more of these. Mrs. Romney will also increase her campaign appearances; she has already begun to talk about how women tell her that they care deeply about the economy, where the campaign wants to keep its focus. Polls showed that as the Republican primary campaign dragged on, Mr. Romney began losing support with women, who may have been put off by the nominating contest’s focus on social issues like Planned Parenthood, immigration and contraception.

“‘Women voters are pocketbook voters, and the highest casualties of President Obama’s failures on the economy have been among women,’ said Eric Fehrnstrom, a senior adviser to Mr. Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts.”

“Rick Santorum had been the last best hope of Christian conservatives who opposed Mitt Romney, derided by many as a ‘Massachusetts moderate.’ Now, facing the abrupt end of Mr. Santorum’s presidential bid, some evangelical leaders have begun to rally behind Mr. Romney, saying their shared hostility toward President Obama will be a powerful force for uniting the party in November…

“Mr. Romney, a range of evangelical leaders said, must not waver in his support for conservative principles if he hopes to tap the energies of Christian conservatives in the general campaign…

“‘Going to the general election, I will do everything I can for Governor Romney,’ [Gary Bauer] said.

“‘But his campaign has got to make it easy for me to help them,’ he added, ‘and not make it hard by being tempted to pull back on conservative issues.'”

“Some high-profile conservatives are warning Romney not to marginalize Santorum.

“‘If they want to be successful, they have to figure out a way to incorporate him into the campaign,’ said Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, noting that Santorum ‘could’ve held this thing out even longer.’…

“But even before Santorum left Gettysburg on Tuesday, some senior Republicans were fretting about the specter of Tampa being hijacked by one of the losing candidates and their supporters.

“‘We can’t let somebody who’s a better performer upstage Romney,’ said one influential party leader, recalling GOP conventions in 1976 (Ronald Reagan) and 1992 (Pat Buchanan) when the nominee’s message was stepped on by his chief primary opponent. ‘We can’t have another shrill speech like what Pat did in 1992 with our gender gap.'”

“Most political professionals, including many Republicans, think that President Obama will win reëlection handily — and this belief is reflected in the betting markets. At Ladbroke’s, the British bookmaker, the odds on an Obama victory are four-to-nine, which means you have to bet ninety dollars to win forty. These odds imply that the chance of Obama winning is about sixty-nine per cent. At Intrade, an online-trading exchange, the implied probability of an Obama victory is a bit lower, but only a bit: sixty-one per cent.

“Despite having been an early proponent of the view that things were shifting in Obama’s direction, I am reluctant to embrace the new conventional wisdom that the result is virtually a foregone conclusion. If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that things can change pretty rapidly in American politics. Unlike Walter Mondale in 1984 or Bob Dole in 1996, Romney isn’t a complete no-hoper. According to a new poll from ABC News and the Washington Post, three in four Americans still think that the economy is in recession, and, by a margin of four percentage points, voters trust Romney more than Obama to handle the economy.

“Clearly, though, there has been a turn. Back in October, Obama’s approval ratings were languishing in the low forties; head-to-head polls showed him lagging Romney in many battleground states, such as Florida; and the unemployment rate stood at 9.1 per cent. Since then, what a reversal of fortune we’ve seen.”

“Conservative primary voters are more discriminating than ever, looking seriously at the flaws of old heroes like Gingrich and new saviors like Rick Perry. They are more willing to keep the primary contest going than before. All they need is a candidate to lead them.

“What if that candidate, come 2016 or 2020, is a current rather than former elected official? Someone with no votes for Medicare Part D or No Child Left Behind in his record? Someone who has governed, without tax increases or TARP bailouts? The bench will not be as depleted from the Bush years next time.

“By winning 11 primaries and caucuses, Rick Santorum was the most successful conservative insurgent since Ronald Reagan in 1976. But that still isn’t good enough. The right is seeking to emulate Reagan in 1980 instead.”

“Guess what? His wife has never actually worked a day in her life. She’s never really dealt with the economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing—in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school, and how do—why we worry about their future. So I think it’s, yes, it’s about these positions, and yes there will be a war of words about the positions, but there’s something much more fundamental about Mitt Romney—he just seems so old-fashioned when it comes to women, and I think that comes across, and I think that’s going to hurt him over the long term. He just doesn’t really see us as equal.”