Eager to shift his focus to President Obama and the fall election, Mitt Romney is moving aggressively on multiple fronts to effectively bring the Republican nomination contest to a swift conclusion, with Tuesday’s primary here in Wisconsin seen as crucial in accelerating his momentum.
Coming on the same day as contests in Maryland and the District of Columbia, Wisconsin’s primary has become the latest major battleground in the Republican race most crucial tests to date for Rick Santorum, who is trying to prove that he can defeat the front-runner in an important general-election state. Both Romney and Santorum plan extensive campaign activity here between now and Tuesday in the first sanctioned winner-take-all contest of the year for the Republicans. The two leading GOP candidates, along with Newt Gingrich, were all in Wisconsin on Saturday.
“Whoever wins Wisconsin is going to have some really serious bragging rights,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus, a former party chairman in this state. Asked whether the nomination battle has entered its final stage, he said, “I think the election on Tuesday is going to be pivotal in making this determination.”
Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, probably will not accumulate the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination until the end of the primary season and faces potential losses to Santorum in contests in May. But by demonstrating his superiority in a series of tests, he expects to rally the party behind his candidacy in a way that would allow him to start building for the general election soon.
Victory on Tuesday is only one part of the Romney campaign’s overall plan to force his rivals to acknowledge that he is the inevitable nominee, even if the others continue their campaigns until the primaries and caucuses end in June or beyond, as they have vowed to do. Other efforts include:
An attempt to deny Santorum the largest share of the delegates in caucus states the former Pennsylvania senator won earlier this year. In those states, delegates chosen in the first round generally were not bound to any candidate, though some media counts include estimates. A Romney official said that, as the process continues in those states, Santorum is in danger of losing ground. A Santorum official disputed that assessment.
A plan to knock Santorum down in his home state of Pennsylvania on April 24, the next big day on the calendar. A Romney victory there would deal a devastating blow to the former senator and probably would lead to calls by others in the party for him to quit the race or modulate his anti-Romney rhetoric for the duration of the contests. Romney supporters already are working just below the radar to tarnish Santorum in the Keystone State. Pennsylvania is the only place among the five states that hold contests April 24 where Santorum is given much chance of winning. Polls once showed him with a double-digit lead but now show the race as a virtual tie. Beyond Pennsylvania, Romney is expected to win in Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and New York, where a big victory would produce another haul of delegates to add to his already substantial lead.
A shift in Romney’s message away from confrontations with his rivals to the choices he sees in the general election. That began Friday with a fresh stump speech in Appleton, Wis., and will continue with upcoming addresses in which he takes principal aim at the president and his policies.
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“I think Romney’s in a formidable position,” said Ralph Reed, who heads the Faith and Freedom Coalition that hosted a forum Saturday where Romney, Santorum and Gingrich spoke. “I think both arithmetically and in terms of some of the recent endorsements he’s gotten. . . . If he’s going to be stopped from being the nominee, I think it’s either going to have to happen here or the dynamic is going to have to change pretty shortly.”
But even before Tuesday’s contests, the tenor of the race has shifted noticeably. Already, some of Romney’s rivals have begun to recede. Talk of a brokered or open convention has faded. “We should be at least the middle of the end stage, and I think we probably are,” said former House member Vin Weber, who supports Romney. “Newt’s campaign is essentially over, and the only question is when he declares it over. Santorum’s not quite in that position, but it’s becoming clear to everybody [that Romney likely will win]. This is really down to Newt and Rick. There’s really nothing that can force them out.”
Gingrich has formally scaled back his campaign due to money problems. He's said he'll remain in the race until the GOP convention in Tampa, but he has softened his criticism of Romney and begun to put more emphasis on efforts to defeat Obama in November.
The former House speaker has concluded that he is not going to be president and is prepared to endorse Romney once he gets to 1,144 delegates, according to an official familiar with Gingrich’s thinking. His focus now is on big ideas to improve the country and strategies designed to help Republicans defeat Obama.
Santorum remains on the attack. Speaking at a forum hosted by the Faith and Freedom Coalition on Saturday morning, he again charged that Romney, as the party’s nominee, would give away the two biggest issues that should shape the Republican message. He said that on both health care and energy policy, Romney’s past positions make him too similar to Obama to make an effective general-election case against the president. “Governor Romney said he’s going to run as a conservative in response to the Etch a Sketch stuff,” Santorum said, referring to a Romney aide’s description of how his candidate could start the fall campaign with a clean slate. “I’m not going to run as a conservative. I am a conservative.”
But Santorum supporters see the days and weeks ahead as critical for the former senator to prove that he can change the dynamic of a race that many in the party already regard as effectively over. Gary Bauer, a leading social conservative and an early endorser, said Santorum has run “an incredibly successful” campaign to date, especially given the disparity in resources. “Having said that, there’s no doubt that Romney’s in a strong position and continues to accumulate delegates. We’ll have to see whether in Wisconsin or in a couple of other competitions anything changes the pattern of where the relative strength is between the two men.”
The irony for Santorum is that May could be one of his best months in the campaign. Many of the states with contests then shape up far better for him than for Romney, in large part because of the preponderance of evangelical Christians in the electorate.
But losses in individual states, particularly those where the electorate is more favorable to Santorum, aren’t likely to affect the outcome. Obama lost five of the last eight contests to Hillary Rodham Clinton four years ago, and in 1976 Jimmy Carter lost almost seven of the last 16 contests. Both went on to win the presidency in November of those years.
Campaigning in Wisconsin on Saturday afternoon, Romney talked optimistically about his expectations. “I got a good boost from the folks in Illinois, and if I can get that boost also from Wisconsin, I think we’ll be on a path that will get me the nomination well before the convention,” he said. “Sure hope so.”
Staff writer Philip Rucker contributed to this report.