WASHINGTON -- Remember all the pundits who warned that the poisonous Republican presidential primary battles threatened to divide the GOP and seriously weaken their nominee? They were wrong.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who will be the party's 2012 presidential standard-bearer, has not only seen his party support soar, he has also taken the lead in the head-to-head matchup polls against President Obama.
It didn't make the network news shows Monday night, but the Gallup Poll officially began its daily tracking polls in the presidential race this week. Its survey of registered voters across the country showed Romney with a five-point lead over Obama -- 48 percent to 43 percent.
Notably, Romney led Obama among independent swing voters -- the politically unaffiliated people who will most likely decide this election -- by 45 percent to 39 percent.
Equally revealing was Gallup's finding that Romney and Obama "are supported by 90 percent of their respective partisans." So much for a divided party.
One of the most remarkable attributes of the modern presidential primary system is that no matter how fiercely and bitterly the warring factions battle each other over the nomination, in the end they usually put aside the political feuds and rally around their presumptive nominee. That's what is happening now.
Once former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum dropped out of the race earlier this month, there was only one overriding focus left for the Republicans: Defeating President Obama. He's the glue that's uniting the GOP behind Romney's candidacy.
This does not mean that Romney hasn't a lot of work to do among Republicans who were not his supporters in the early primaries -- especially women.
But a Washington Post/ABC News Poll showed Tuesday that Republicans were rallying behind Romney and that he was consolidating the GOP's conservative base. This poll also found him "picking up significant support from GOP men."
"Sixty-nine percent of Republicans -- including 80 percent of conservative Republicans -- now hold favorable views of the former governor," the poll report said.
(Note: The Post/ABC survey is based on a sampling of "adults," which is a much less accurate reading of election trends than the Gallup poll of registered voters or, best of all, likely voters.)
But Romney has his work cut out for him among women voters and Latinos, where Obama has strong support. The Post survey reported 58 percent of women hold favorable views of the president, while Romney is seen unfavorably by 52 percent of women.
Romney has stepped up his political appeals to women voters on economic issues, pointing out that no group has suffered more under the Obama economy than women, who have experienced high job losses and brutally severe poverty rates.
Hispanics, the fastest-growing minority group in the U.S., represent another hurdle for Romney, though there are indications that a large chunk of their vote is up for grabs on the issues of jobs and immigration.
Seventy-six percent of Hispanic voters have favorable views of Obama compared to 33 percent for Romney, the Post-ABC poll found.
Significantly, a relatively large bloc of Hispanics -- nearly three in 10 -- say they haven't formed an opinion of Romney.
President George W. Bush captured 44 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004 and John McCain won 31 percent of them in 2008. So there's a larger base vote that Romney can win with a strong economic appeal to this pivotal bloc of voters in critical swing states.
Outside of African-American voters, no minority group has a higher unemployment rate than Hispanic/Latino Americans. And perhaps no other minority group of its size has been as successful in creating small businesses.
Republican insiders say that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is popular in the Hispanic community, is urging Romney's high command to make a major political appeal to the Hispanic/Latino vote. And plans are being made to do just that, possibly with Bush as a leading spokesman.
If Republicans can win 40 percent of this vote, Obama will be a one-term president.
Meantime, it needs to be said that Romney's early lead in the polls may not tell us much about the direction of the campaign in the months to come.
A nationwide Gallup poll conducted between April 20 and 22, 1992, showed President H.W. Bush leading with 41 percent of the vote, compared to 26 percent for Bill Clinton.
In early April 1980, Gallup had President Jimmy Carter leading former California governor Ronald Reagan by a substantial margin -- 42 percent to 34 percent.
But in the end, both Bush and Carter lost their bids for a second term.
The economy is going to shape and drive this election cycle, and right now it appears to be slowing down and there is nothing Obama can do about it.
Most economists have lowered their economic growth forecasts for the year to little more than a feeble 2 percent range, after limping through last year at 1.7 percent. That's not nearly enough for job creation to keep pace with population growth.
The 120,000 jobs created in March stunned the White House, and reports indicate that Obama's economic advisers do not expect the jobs picture to improve dramatically in the next several months.
That's why the White House has switched its election focus away from economic growth and new job creation to tax fairness and gimmicky soak-the-rich tax hikes like the Buffett Rule that failed in the Senate on Monday.
Obama's national job approval poll was a mediocre 46 percent this week, with 48 percent now disapproving of his presidential performance.
With jobs in short supply and a weak economy running nearly on empty, Mitt Romney has plenty of reasons to like his chances in November.
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