STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's turn next to NPR's Mara Liasson. Mara, good morning.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.
INSKEEP: So what does Santorum's decision mean?
LIASSON: Well, on one level it's a huge milestone. It really does wrap this up for Mitt Romney. On the other hand, it changes very little because Romney was already moving ahead with plans for the general election. The general election fight was already underway. The president and Romney were - are engaging each other directly. But this does make it official and it's only April - we were talking about having this race drag on till June.
INSKEEP: This has got to give - save Romney some time and also some money that he can deploy in other ways.
LIASSON: Yes, I think there are a lot of things this allows Romney to do that he couldn't have done while Santorum was still in the race. It probably will accelerate the pace at which the Republican superPACs move in on Romney's behalf. It certainly helps Romney, as you said, on fundraising, stops the drain on his coffers that the primaries had turned out to be. He doesn't have to go through this next spate of Southern primaries, which would have only demonstrated his continuing weaknesses with the conservative base.
Now he can turn his full attention to repairing the damage with conservatives, with evangelicals, with Hispanics, with women, without the distraction, however minimal, from the primary fight with Santorum.
INSKEEP: I'm reminded of that remark, that unfortunate remark, about a Romney advisor - by a Romney advisor about Etch-a-sketch. This is the moment when Romney can shake things up, I suppose.
LIASSON: He can, and he will get a shave and a haircut and a fresh look from voters, a lot of voters who haven't paid any attention up until now.
INSKEEP: And does Santorum figure, though, as a possible Romney running mate? I mean it seems that he's finished second here.
LIASSON: Well, I don't think so. I think maybe if Santorum had been able to raise hundreds of millions of dollars and been more of a threat to Romney, he could have put more pressure on Romney to make it more necessary for him to pick a social conservative as a running mate.
But I think the short list is the same as it's been: Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, Chris Christie, John Thune, Bobby Jindal and Bob McDonnell. I don't think the list has changed.
INSKEEP: Most of the people you've mentioned there are governors, popular governors in one way or another across the country or in their individual states; a senator or two as well.
LIASSON: That's right.
INSKEEP: OK. So let's talk about the general election then. Here we are. We're starting it up. How does it look?
LIASSON: Well, I think that it looks like it's going to be a very hard fought, very negative fight between a vulnerable incumbent and a weak challenger. Both men are trying to paint this as a stark and divisive choice as possible, Romney attacking the president for being a failed president who's increased unemployment and debt, Obama attacking Romney for having policies that would protect the wealthy and hurt the middle-class.
The polls show at this moment a very small edge for President Obama. Romney has some trouble with independents, with women and Hispanics. But there are other signs that are ominous for the president in those polls. He has real weaknesses when it comes to handling the economy. In the money race, I think the two men are not only even, but it's possible that Republicans will have an edge all in when you count the SuperPACs.
So I think this race is off and running, and it's very evenly matched.
INSKEEP: Is it possible, Mara, that because Romney has turned out to be the nominee instead of one of the other candidates, that actually the choice when you get down to it won't appear all that stark to many voters? Romney may struggle to prove that Obama is all that different from him. And Obama may struggle to prove that Romney is all that extreme.
LIASSON: Hmm. I think that the amount of effort in message and television advertising that will be spent to prove the opposite of what you just said is going to be overwhelming.
INSKEEP: Oh sure. The money...
LIASSON: I think it's not in either of these guys' interest to make it look like they're similar. I think that the way the race is shaping up, it looks like a very stark choice. As a matter of fact, last night President Obama said this is going to be the starkest choice since Johnson and Goldwater.
INSKEEP: So whether it is or not, that's what they're going to be telling us, and the way they're going to be framing their arguments and the way they stand for issues.
LIASSON: That's right.
INSKEEP: OK, Mara, thanks very much.
LIASSON: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson speaking with us on this morning after Rick Santorum dropped out of the Republican presidential race. Newt Gingrich is still running. Ron Paul is still running. But it appears that Mitt Romney has it wrapped up. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.