Washington’s favorite gossip game — speculating about the vice presidential pick — now gets serious.

Following last week’s five-state primary sweep, Mitt Romney has forced even the last hold-out, former Speaker Newt Gingrich, to acknowledge reality: Romney has a lock on the GOP’s 2012 presidential nomination.

The next step for Romney is to introduce himself to America as a general election candidate. It will be tough. He begins with negative favorability ratings — especially compared to President Obama.

The ABC News/Washington Post poll shows 47 percent of Americans holding an unfavorable opinion of Romney with just 35 percent viewing him favorably. Obama has a 21-point advantage with a 56 percent favorability rating.

Romney is fighting the image created over the primary campaign in which he came across as an out-of-touch rich guy, pandering to the right wing by flip-flopping on the moderate Republican positions he held as governor of Massachusetts.