The pregame warm-up is over.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's urgent task now: Learn the lessons of a primary season peppered with tactical and communications errors that cost time and money while reinforcing doubts about him.
It's a must, even allies say, given that he now faces Democratic President Barack Obama's well-oiled machine, battle-tested and prepared to face the eventual Republican nominee.
At first glance during the primary, Romney's team appeared disciplined compared with his error-prone rivals. He also kept one eye on Obama the whole time.
Yet, Romney gave his primary rivals openings with a series of verbal gaffes that highlighted his vulnerabilities. And he let key states like South Carolina and Colorado slip away by failing to anticipate surging opponents. Unexpected losses in those states dragged out the primary season, preventing Romney from turning his attention to Obama in earnest until earlier this month, when chief GOP rival Rick Santorum dropped out.
Since then, Romney aides have huddled in his Boston headquarters mapping out a general election strategy that they'll try to execute with more precision than they did their primary playbook.
"It's a completely different game in the general election. You have to define a set of states that you have to have, and win them," said Charlie Black, a longtime GOP presidential campaign strategist. "It's a one-day sale."
To succeed against Obama, Republicans say, Romney will have to be nimble as he negotiates the general election chessboard and works to amass the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. And allies say he must anticipate an Obama rise in toss-up states and GOP-leaning states Democrats may try to compete in - and work to head off such surges early.
Romney failed to do that in at least two instances during the primary.
The former Massachusetts governor flew with a head of steam into South Carolina after a New Hampshire victory, and his team all but expected him to cruise to victory in the first-in-the-South primary. But, in a shock to his team, he ended up spending 10 days squaring off against a suddenly ascendant Newt Gingrich, who ultimately ended up winning the state.
Romney then turned to Florida, where he successfully beat back a Gingrich challenge.
But while Romney was doing that, Santorum had skipped ahead to Colorado, and voters in that state were embracing the former Pennsylvania senator as he seized on the breaking debate over the Obama administration's ruling on Catholic hospitals and contraception.
Romney had won Colorado four years earlier, and his team had expected his backers to turn out in earnest again. But by the time Romney turned his attention to Colorado, dropping a token sum on television ads in the campaign's closing days, the state was slipping from his grasp.
"A tactical mistake they made was they did try to win Colorado, and failed," Black said of the Romney campaign. "They got outhustled."
It was Santorum's three wins - in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri - that established him as Romney's chief rival - and set the course for two more months of the nomination fight.
So far in the general election, supporters say Romney has shown he's adept at countering Obama - if not working to prevent a rise - in key states.
Romney pre-empted the president this week in North Carolina and Ohio, which Obama won in 2008 and are competitive this year. And, as he has elsewhere, Romney used Obama's own pledges from the 2008 campaign against him in both states.
But even if Romney's campaign successfully limits tactical mistakes, it's an open question whether the candidate himself can avoid the verbal gaffes that have given Republicans and Democrats alike fodder to attack. Such remarks fueled the notion that Romney's nothing more than a wealthy businessman who does not relate to the pain of everyday Americans in a fragile economy.
GOP strategists say Romney must curb his tendency for such awkward remarks, which will be amplified in the general election.
In February, for instance, Romney was trying to explain his efforts to focus on middle-class voters when he said: "I'm not concerned about the very poor." Later that month, Romney said in Michigan, a state with nearly 9 percent unemployment, that his wife "drives a couple of Cadillacs." A few days later, attending the Daytona 500 in Florida, he said, "I have some great friends who are NASCAR team owners."
The most recent gaffe came from a staffer: Senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom suggested that Romney could reset his strategy after nailing down the GOP nomination, likening the transition to erasing the image on an Etch A Sketch.
Still, for all those comments, Romney's campaign has shown an ability to return the focus to Obama, which Republicans say will be critical in this campaign.
Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.