Presidential candidate Mitt Romney kisses his wife, Ann, as they celebrate… (Tannen Maury, European…)
Reporting from Chicago —
Mitt Romney's big win in the Illinois primary didn't end the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. But it may all but guarantee that after repeated slips and stumbles, including a fresh one hours after his victory, the former Massachusetts governor will lead the GOP into the fall contest against President Obama.
Rick Santorum, Romney's chief antagonist, is not going away any time soon. He is almost certain to notch a few more victories, perhaps as early as Saturday in Louisiana, the kind of heavily rural, religious and deeply conservative state that has repeatedly backed the former Pennsylvania senator.
FOR THE RECORD:
GOP delegates: An article in Section A on March 22 about Mitt Romney's getting closer to becoming the Republican nominee for president said that it takes 1,114 delegates to secure the nomination. The correct figure is 1,144. —
But mathematics and the political calendar — two things that no amount of money, wishing or campaigning can change — work against Santorum and appear to be steadily, irreversibly tilting the race in Romney's favor.
In one of the strongest signals yet that party leaders want the contest to be over soon, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ended his neutrality and announced Wednesday that he was backing Romney.
"Primary elections have been held in 34 states, and now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Gov. Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall," said Bush, one of the party's most prominent fence-sitters and coveted endorsers.
But even as Romney savored what could prove an important pivot point in the race, his campaign was thrown on the defensive by an aide's remark on a morning talk show, which played to one of the candidate's perennial problems: doubts about his authenticity.
Appearing on CNN, advisor Eric Fehrnstrom was asked whether the campaign was worried that the strongly conservative positions Romney had staked out in the GOP race would hurt him with more moderate voters in the general election. Some of those positions — on abortion, gay rights, global warming — have conflicted with stances Romney took earlier in his political career.
"Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign," Fehrnstrom responded. "Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again."
Santorum was quick to pounce. "One thing you can say, even my staunchest critics will say, is what you see is what you get," he told reporters at a campaign stop at an energy services company in Harvey, La.
Romney "will say what he needs to say to win the election," Santorum said.
Gleeful Democrats also piled on. In short order, the national party produced an online video featuring snippets of a grainy Romney inside an Etch-A-Sketch frame expressing, among other things, a desire to eliminate Planned Parenthood. "Some things you can't shake off," the video taunts.
Romney responded after an afternoon appearance in Maryland.
"I'm running as a conservative Republican," he told reporters at the American Legion Hall in Arbutus. "I was a conservative Republican governor. I'll be running as a conservative Republican nominee.... The policies and positions are the same."
The events reflected a pattern that has persisted throughout the Republican contest, with each important Romney achievement seemingly followed by some sort of gaffe. The latest was a gift for Santorum in that it hit on the very reason that many Republicans have held back from supporting the front-runner despite his repeated victories and growing lead in the all-important delegate count.
Even Bush's endorsement was striking for its less-than-effusive tone. His written statement, accompanied by a Tweet, seemed aimed more at ending the race than wholeheartedly embracing Romney.
Romney responded with his own written statement, expressing "tremendous pride" and calling Bush's decision "a key moment in the presidential contest."
Santorum brushed off the endorsement, saying that "the establishment has made their choice. I think the people of Louisiana are going to make a different choice."
But a win Saturday, duplicating what Santorum has already achieved across the South, probably wouldn't alter the dynamic of the contest the way an upset victory in Illinois — a big, diverse, more moderate and less evangelical state — would have.
It wasn't even close in Illinois: Romney won by 12 percentage points. More important, he buried Santorum in the delegate competition, 41 to 10, with three still to be allotted.
With more than half the states accounted for, Romney now holds a commanding lead in delegates — he has more than twice as many as Santorum, his closest competitor — and is widening that margin with each contest.