It doesn't seem like this is the most critical period of the general election campaign, but for Mitt Romney, it probably is.
Mitt Romney has to step up his game quickly.
As the protracted GOP primary contest finally winds down, Mitt Romney enters the general election campaign at a significant disadvantage to President Obama.
While the President has an approval of close to 50 percent and a favorability rating of slightly more than 50 percent, Romney’s favorable/unfavorable rating is 16 --with 34 percent favorable and 50 percent unfavorable in an ABC News/Washington Post poll released in late March.
Nationally, the president now holds a 5-point lead, according to today’s RCP Average, while enjoying significant leads in key swing states like Florida, Virginia, North Carolina and Ohio. And in states like Wisconsin and Michigan his lead is in the double digits according to the RCP Average of all polling conducted between February 10 and April 3, 2012.
The Obama campaign, for its part, has invested heavily in both media campaigns and ground operations in key battleground states in recent months -- in the effort to marginalize Gov. Romney and grow the president’s lead as wide as possible before the general election campaign begins.
And thanks to a long and bruising primary battle against Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, the Romney campaign now finds itself two months behind on its plan to build political and field operations in key battleground states, the only way Romney can get back into the race quickly will be through the expenditure of substantial Super PAC dollars.
With the ad war just now beginning, the Romney campaign simply would not have the funds necessary to launch a competitive general election campaign -- but for the fact that at least one, if not more, Super PACs will be involved on behalf of Gov. Romney.
Going forward, the key actors in this process will be Karl Rove, whose Super PAC American Crossroads has raised $200 million, as well as the pro-Romney Super PAC, Restore Our Future.
What is clear is that unless American Crossroads, Restore Our Future and other related Super PACs can resurrect the Romney Campaign in the next couple of months, Gov. Romney runs the risk of being marginalized in the way that Bob Dole was in 1996 when he ran against President Bill Clinton.
The Republicans have too much of a vested interest, too great of a commitment, and frankly too much money to let the race get out of hand this early.
But make no mistake about it -- the campaign now is not Obama vs. Romney. It is Obama vs. Karl Rove, American Crossroads, and Restore Our Future.
Douglas E. Schoen is a political strategist and Fox News contributor. Schoen, who served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton, is author of several books including the forthcoming "Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics and What It Means for 2012 and Beyond" (Rowman and Littlefield). Follow him on Twitter @DouglasESchoen.