By STEVE PEOPLES and PHILIP ELLIOTT, Associated Press
EXETER, N.H. (AP) -- Mitt Romney is on cruise control -- with his eyes focused intently on the White House and President Barack Obama -- as the political landscape in the Republican presidential race shifts all around him.
With his GOP rivals struggling, the former Massachusetts governor has been quietly positioning his campaign for a general election clash against Obama. He's visiting places like the perennial swing state of Pennsylvania and raising piles of cash in New York. He has yet to run his first television ad of the Republican nomination fight. He skipped a series of multicandidate forums in Iowa last week. And, until Monday, it had been 10 days since he took questions from voters in a public setting.
"One of the reasons we've had such a hard time getting our economy going again is because of the huge deficits being racked up by this president, and by politicians in Washington," Romney told about 100 GOP activists at a Dubuque, Iowa, sheet-metal products manufacturer as the week began, sticking to his script.
It was just his third public event in over a week; the other two were speeches on spending that were largely overlooked as his rivals' damage-control efforts and campaign foibles consumed the conversation about the GOP race in early primary states like this and elsewhere.
Businessman Herman Cain has spent more than a week fending off allegations of inappropriate sexual behavior, including a new accusation on Monday. Texas Gov. Rick Perry is struggling to bounce back from shaky debate performances as well as an unusually animated speech in New Hampshire that raised questions about whether he was under the influence of a substance; Perry said he wasn't.
Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann recently lost her entire New Hampshire staff, which resigned after describing a campaign in chaos and operating on a shoestring. Others like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have tight budgets and lean campaign organizations that are complicating efforts to effectively challenge Romney, the Republican to beat in the nomination fight.
With Republicans scheduled to begin voting in just two months, none of Romney's opponents has been able to dent the air of inevitability that has begun to surround his candidacy. They don't have much time to overcome their weaknesses and derail him. And Romney is giving them little ammunition to use against him, showing the campaign skills he has honed since his first failed presidential bid in 2008.
"I think he's not only lucky, I think he's smart," said Phyllis Woods, a New Hampshire-based National Republican Committee member. "I think the election is his to lose at this point. And he needs to keep a low profile, which is what he's done. He just needs to not foul it up."
He's helped by the fact that his rivals' woes -- and for the past week Cain's primarily -- are dominating the political news coverage. So far, polls show the allegations aren't taking a toll on Cain among Republicans in the nomination race and that he's still competitive with Romney at the top of the pack.
"There are always distractions in politics," said former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who has fought to overcome financial problems in recent weeks. "And often times you're going to have the drama of politics that will play out in an unpredictable fashion and it's hard to know where that then goes. It consumes days, maybe a whole week, and that does take some of the bandwidth out of the atmosphere, there's no doubt about that."
Even though the focus hasn't been on him -- or perhaps because the focus hasn't been on him -- Romney has seemed content with doing his thing with little regard to his Republican rivals, a strategy based on lessons learned from his campaign of four years ago.
The preoccupation of his rivals with their own campaigns has seemed to give Romney the freedom to focus on raising money -- he's sitting on $15 million -- to fend off any Republicans who challenge him in the nominating contests that begin Jan. 3 in Iowa.
"You're looking at a confident and capable candidate. From a money perspective, there's no question: We're knocking it out of the park," said Woody Johnson, the New York Jets owner and a Romney fundraiser who was on hand when the candidate raised a couple million dollars on a New York fundraising trip last week.
Beyond raising money, Romney spent much of the week granting a handful of television interviews to stations in general election battlefields like Colorado and Florida. He also unveiled detailed spending plans in New Hampshire and Washington. He didn't join Republicans at a forum on manufacturing in Pella, Iowa, or at a party gala in Des Moines.
And he didn't feel pressure to go up on the airwaves in early voting states like New Hampshire even though Perry -- the only candidate with the money to go at Romney hard -- and his allies started running TV ads in New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina.
It was a comfortable -- even light -- schedule as other candidates fought for attention and to overcome personal struggles.
From the sidelines, Romney deflected questions about his opponents.
"I really don't have any information about Herman Cain's setting. I've only seen what's been on TV and what I've read in the newspapers. All the questions related to his issue there I think have to be addressed to him and to his campaign," Romney recently told Denver station KUSA.
In the end, he may end up being the one who stands to benefit the most by Cain's troubles.
"I'm going to have to write Mitt Romney a check. If you had told me four years ago that I'd be doing it, I wouldn't have believed it," said David Welch, a former aide to Sen. John McCain's presidential campaign, said Monday after Cain's latest accuser came forward. "But this is where we are."
Elliott reported from Iowa.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)