Newt Gingrich, campaigning in Ohio, said of rival Mitt Romney: "He's… (Mario Tama, Getty Images )
Reporting from Cincinnati — After a dozen contests, 20 debates and the prospect of weeks or even months of continued skirmishing, there is a growing clamor among Republicans to bring the presidential nomination race to a close for fear of hopelessly damaging the party's chances against President Obama.
Republicans designed their plan for picking a nominee to test their candidates with a longer, more grueling campaign. But the move threatens to backfire in favor of a Democratic incumbent who has gained strength as the increasingly nasty GOP contest has worn on.
"There's been plenty of preliminaries," said Curt Steiner, a Republican strategist in Ohio, the most important of the nearly dozen states voting this week on Super Tuesday. "It's time to focus on the general election."
Steiner backs Mitt Romney, so it's no surprise he would like to end the primary season with the former Massachusetts governor ahead, if still far short of the 1,144 convention delegates needed to secure the nomination. Sending a signal from Washington, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia on Sunday announced his endorsement of Romney ahead of his state's Tuesday primary.
It's not just Romney backers, though, who worry about the toll of a prolonged and increasingly nasty contest.
"The campaign has become deeply personal and very negative," said Steve Schmidt, who managed Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign and is staying neutral this time. "There is no optimistic vision. It's all about stabbing the opponent."
The damage, Schmidt said, is evident in polls that show Obama gaining ground against challengers while negative views of the Republican field increase. More worrisome from the GOP perspective is the shift of political independents toward Obama and the risk of further alienating those swing voters as the discussion strays from economic issues to the merits of contraception and the separation of church and state.
"This is stuff that will do great harm to the Republican Party," Schmidt said, a view shared, quite happily, by the Obama camp.
The president chimed in at a New York City fundraiser last week. "I recommend you watch the recent debates," he told donors. "I'm thinking about just running those as advertisements."
Yet no one can simply call a halt to the Republican race. The only way the campaign will end, short of one candidate mathematically clinching the nomination, is for the also-rans to quit, something they seem to have no intention of doing anytime soon.
"This is going to go on for a good while," Newt Gingrich said Sunday on ABC's "This Week with George Stephanopoulos." Romney may outspend the rest of the GOP field "by multiples," the former House speaker said, but "he's not a very convincing front-runner, and he's a long way from having closed out this race."
With the benefit of deep-pocketed "super PACs" — political action committees that support their effort — and rules allowing them to win delegates even if they finish second or worse, candidates have every incentive to keep running.
In resisting pressure to step aside, Gingrich and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum have played to the insurgent sentiments embodied by the tea party movement, portraying their candidacies as a rebellion against the top-down order some in the party would like to impose. (Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, who has a small but indefatigable core of supporters, operates by his own rules.)
"We're up against a sledgehammer here with the Romney campaign ... but we just start getting tougher," Santorum said during a weekend visit to a sandwich shop in Wilmington, Ohio. "I think that's what going to happen in this campaign."
That notion — betterment through competition — is precisely what party leaders intended. Although he is supporting Romney, Saul Anuzis, a member of the Republican National Committee, welcomes the stiff nominating fight.
"It gives them an opportunity to fine-tune their message" in an environment "that's clearly no less intense than what they're going to face in the general election," Anuzis said. "I think whoever emerges as our nominee will probably be a stronger and better candidate because of the process."
Many Republicans point to 2008, when Democrats Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton battled into June. Obama improved as a candidate and won such Republican-leaning states as Indiana and North Carolina in November in part because of the groundwork his campaign laid during primaries in those states.
There are, however, important differences.