By Kasie Hunt and Steve Peoples
GREEN BAY, Wis. — As Mitt Romney looked for a sweep in Tuesday’s three Republican primaries to tighten his grip on the party’s nomination, President Barack Obama criticized the GOP front-runner by name in a campaign ad for the first time, signaling that he too thinks the nomination race is all but over.
Regardless of the outcome in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C., Romney was rapidly shifting toward the general election — and the challenges of Obama’s better-financed and better-organized opposition.
The president flexed that campaign muscle Monday, suggesting that he’s ready for Romney even if the former Massachusetts governor isn’t quite ready for him. Obama released a television ad set to run in six swing states accusing Romney of standing with “Big Oil.” The ad came hours after the release of a similar campaign from an Obama ally.
Romney has been ignoring his Republican rivals for several days and taking it to the Democratic president, whom he accused Monday of “crushing dreams” with a “government-centered society.”
“He takes his political inspiration from the capitals of Europe,” Romney told supporters in Green Bay, Wis., one day before the latest primaries in the GOP fight. “His version of a perfect world is a big-spending big government.”
The grinding Republican primary, already three months old, has complicated his ability to re-focus his broader organization and resources toward Obama. Aides concede that fundraising for the fall match-up is lagging.
Romney’s recent string of high-dollar California fundraisers was limited to raising money only for the Republican primary contests. Aides are only beginning to take steps to raise cash to use against Obama, who has been aggressively fundraising and distributed staff on the ground in almost every state in the nation. The delay has given Obama a massive head start.
At the end of February, Obama reported $84.7 million in his campaign account compared to Romney’s $7.3 million. Obama has more than 530 paid staff compared to roughly 100 for Romney.
Romney and his allies have spent a combined $53 million on television advertising so far this election cycle compared to just $27 million from his three Republican competitors combined, according to data compiled by the media tracking firm SMG Delta.
In the primary race, Romney has a huge advantage in delegates. On Monday, The Associated Press count had Romney with exactly half the delegates needed to win the nomination, 572.
For the fall campaign, Romney’s presidential hopes may rest, at least in part, upon the ability of the Republican National Committee to give him a running start.
Last week, the committee announced it had filled a “presidential trust” with $21 million to spend in coordination with the nominee. But there is no limit on what the committee can raise and spend on its own to support the party’s presidential contender.
“There are donors that are sitting on the sidelines right now,” said Republican National Committee political director Rick Wiley.
Romney’s campaign has also been anxious to be able to raise money for the party itself when it holds finance events — donors can cut checks of up to $30,800 to the party committee. But without the nomination, they haven’t been able to ask for that money yet.
In Chicago, Obama’s team has 300 paid staffers already at work inside the president’s re-election headquarters. They’re anticipating a general election against Romney.
“We are building the largest grassroots campaign in history on the ground,” Obama campaign spokesman Ben LaBolt said. “Ultimately, our supporters talking to their networks about the two candidates, their records and their visions for the country will be much more persuasive than any television spot.”
Associated Press writer Beth Fouhy contributed to this report.