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Romney and Obama face off as GOP race nears end

War of words as challenger cruises to victory in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington DC

The reek of rhetorical gunpowder hung over Washington last night as Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama hurled themselves into the battle for the White House, regardless of the lingering presence of other rivals for the Republican Party nomination.

The sense of the nomination contest fading into the background and the general election firing up took hold after Mr Romney defeated his main rival, Rick Santorum, in primary elections in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington DC on Tuesday. Mr Romney also lengthened his commanding lead in numbers of delegates who will vote for him at the Republican national convention in August. Mr Santorum yesterday ignored calls for him to drop out.

If Mr Romney is straining to shake off his challengers and concentrate his energies on winning in November, then Mr Obama is ready, as demonstrated by a speech in Washington on Tuesday that showed him in undisguised re-election mode, with Mr Romney as the assumed foe. He flayed Mr Romney for backing a draft budget written by Republicans in Congress that aims to strip away social supports in the name of deficit reduction. "He even called it marvellous," he snipped. Painting Mr Romney as effete, the President said "marvellous" was "a word you don't often hear when it comes to describing a budget... It's a word you don't often hear generally".

Both men are tracing what they think the race will be about: more government versus less. "The President has pledged to 'transform America,' and he has spent the last four years laying the foundation for a new government-centred society," Mr Romney said before leaving Wisconsin. "I will spend the next four years rebuilding the foundation of our Opportunity Society, led by free people and free enterprises."

Among those urging Mr Santorum to throw in the towel was the former candidate Senator John McCain, who said he should recognise "it's time for a graceful exit". Mr Santorum was already focusing, however, on the Pennsylvania primary on 24 April, where he should have a home-state advantage, and after that on some southern states that look friendly to him, including Arkansas and Texas.

Before Mr Romney headed into Pennsylvania territory last night for two rallies, he took to the same stage in Washington that Mr Obama had occupied on Tuesday. Speaking to a conference of editors, he accused the President of creating "straw men" in his speech 24 hours before. "President Obama came here yesterday and railed against arguments no one is making and criticised policies no one is proposing," he contended. "It's one of his favourite strategies – setting up straw men to distract from his record. And while I understand why the President doesn't want to run on his record, he can't run from his record either."Mr Romney now has 658 delegates, putting him on pace to reach the 1,144 needed to clinch the nomination by early June. Mr Santorum has 281 delegates, Newt Gingrich 135 and Ron Paul 51. Neither Mr Gingrich nor Mr Paul have a hope of catching up, but believe they could rise again if Mr Romney does not make the 1,144 he needs before the party convention in Tampa.

VP runners and riders

Marco Rubio

The Florida senator is the favourite in the Republican vice-presidential race. The rising star of the Tea Party ticks boxes, but as a first-term senator, he may lack gravitas that others could lend to Romney's camp.

Paul Ryan

Many have speculated that the young House Budget chairman from Wisconsin, who campaigned on behalf of Romney, is the real favourite among GOP insiders.

Susana Martinez

Despite denying that she is interested in the post, New Mexico Governor Martinez (one of the GOP's most popular governors, and with the added strength of being Hispanic) is regarded as a possible surprise nomination.

Chris Christie

The man who some still believe could announce himself as a candidate at the convention in August is an obvious choice. The danger with the New Jersey Governor – who led polls for the nomination until he said he would not run – is that he could overshadow Romney.