For once, at least, the conventional wisdom was right all along. Mitt Romney is going to be the Republican nominee for president of the United States.

When Rick Santorum suspended his campaign Tuesday, it meant that on Inauguration Day _ Jan. 20, 2013, one of two men _ Romney or current White House occupant Barack Obama _ will be taking the oath of office.

To begin, Romney deserves a certain amount of credit. He was the only Republican to run a well-conceived and financed, professional 50-state campaign. He is a Mormon, a former governor of Massachusetts who once ran to the left of Teddy Kennedy, championed abortion rights and created the blueprint for Obamacare. Yet, this moderate captured the nomination of a party dominated by hard-line social, economic and religious conservatives.

His critics will say that he won largely on the strength of carpet-bombing his opponents with negative advertising, and those critics won't be far wrong. But money has long been the mother's milk of politics, and Romney should get credit for doing a far better job of raising funds than any of his opponents.

But Romney also benefited greatly from the lack of any credible opponents in the Republican field. One-by-one, party heavyweights such as Jeb Bush, Paul Ryan, Bobby Jindal, Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels and Chris Christie declined to enter the primaries.

What was left was what conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer referred to as a "clown show" of wildly inappropriate candidates who all took their temporary turns leading in the polls while the right wing searched for an alternative to Romney.

Donald Trump and his birther act? Michele Bachmann, with her wildly inaccurate statements? Rick Perry, who may one day be a formidable candidate but showed no aptitude to express himself in numerous debates?

Herman Cain, with his "9-9-9" economic plan that didn't add up, his "Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan" ignorance of foreign affairs and ultimately some romantic affairs he apparently knew a lot about?

Newt Gingrich. who ran against the media as much as against Romney and banked on people ignoring his questionable marital history, reprimand by the House of Representatives and contradictory and outrageous public pronouncements?

And finally, Santorum, an out-of-the-mainstream religious zealot who somehow thought a massive 18-point loss in his 2006 Senate re-election campaign could be a springboard to the presidency?

To be certain, Romney has problems galore. The primaries forced him to move far to the right on issues such as women's rights and immigration. A poll this week showed him trailing Obama by almost 40 points in likability.

But Romney has until November to change that dynamic. The preliminaries are over. Let the main event begin.

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