In a victory that all but ends a drawn-out, topsy-turvy fight for the Republican nomination, Mitt Romney defeated Rick Santorum in the Wisconsin presidential primary Tuesday, a day that marked the de facto start of a fierce general election fight with Democratic President Obama.
"We have won a great victory tonight in our campaign to restore the promise of America," said Romney, whose victory speech from the Grain Exchange Room in Milwaukee was devoted entirely to positioning himself as the party's standard-bearer and making his case against the sitting president.
The president also fueled that general election storyline, making a blistering speech in Washington to news editors that criticized Romney by name and assailed the House budget plan endorsed by Romney and drafted by Congressman Paul Ryan of Janesville.
Romney's victories in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C., help him in his mathematical march toward the nomination after winning the vast majority of the 95 delegates in play Tuesday. And they leave his chief opponent with a shrinking rationale for fighting on. Wisconsin was widely regarded within the party as Santo rum's last true shot to shake up the race by defeating Romney on an even playing field and in a major election battleground.
"I think Romney just made himself the prohibitive front-runner tonight," said Ryan, the House budget chair, in an interview with the Journal Sentinel on Tuesday night.
"I don't think (Santorum) is viable anymore," said Ryan, who endorsed Romney last Friday, campaigned continuously with him the past five days and introduced him at the victory party Tuesday night.
The next GOP contests aren't until April 24, and the only state that appears winnable for Santorum that day is his home state of Pennsylvania, where Santorum spent Tuesday night and planned to campaign Wednesday.
"Pennsylvania and half the other people in this country have yet to be heard, and we're going to go out and campaign here and across this nation to make sure their votes are heard in the next few months," Santorum said Tuesday night.
The pressure building with the party to end a divisive and damaging intramural fight now becomes immense, with GOP leaders hungry to unify Republicans and turn toward the challenging task of unseating a well-financed and well-organized incumbent.
"People are tired," Senate candidate and former governor Tommy Thompson said a few days before the primary. "People want it over. Enough's enough."
There may be a feeling in the party that "Romney's not everything everybody wants," said Thompson, who did not endorse anyone, but "everybody is convinced in their minds that Romney has got the best shot against Obama, so let's get it on."
Exit polls showed that 8 in 10 primary voters expect Romney to be the nominee. They also showed Romney performing better with the kinds of voters who have given him trouble all year.
Romney won 43% of "very conservative" voters, matching Santorum among a group he has repeatedly lost in competitive states. He only lost white evangelicals by four points, after losing them in state after state by double digits. He won voters without college degrees, after losing these voters in numerous other primaries.
Romney beat Santorum by large margins in the GOP suburbs in southeastern Wisconsin that play an outsize role in Republican elections. Santorum won much of northern and western Wisconsin, assuring himself of a piece of the state's delegate haul. He won rural voters, but rural voters were a smaller part of the electorate than they were in the 2008 GOP primary, according to exit polls.
There were 42 delegates at stake in Wisconsin, with 18 assigned to statewide winner Romney, and three delegates going to the winner of each of the state's eight congressional districts. Santorum seemed on track to win at least three congressional districts.
Ryan endorsement key
Romney's performance was all the more notable because of how poor his standing was just five or six weeks ago, according to Wisconsin polls taken that month. He trailed Santorum by double digits and had mediocre popularity ratings among GOP voters.
But Romney's victory in Illinois two weeks ago bolstered his case as the inevitable nominee, and he and his allies outspent Santorum by a margin of 4-to-1 on TV here.
While staking Santorum to a six-day head start in the state, Romney arrived Friday and spent the next four days on the Wisconsin cam paign trail, almost inseparable from Ryan, the influential conservative whose endorsement symbolized the slow-motion parade of high-profile Republicans to the Romney camp.
At campaign events, some voters cited Ryan's endorsement as pushing them into the Romney column. Senate GOP freshman Ron Johnson and U.S. Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner also endorsed Romney, giving him a conservative seal of approval to their constituents.
"They know us as verifiable and known conservatives," Ryan said of many GOP voters in the state. "When they saw conservatives in Wisconsin endorse Mitt and vouch for him like Ron and Jim and I did, that really improved people's comfort level."
Ryan said he thought Romney won Wisconsin because he resonated with voters as he campaigned in the state and because "people want to see this primary end ... they kind of know that if we keep dragging this thing on, it's going to make it that much harder to beat Obama in fall."
That was the task Romney turned to in his victory speech, which contained many of the general election themes he began to strike on his arrival in Wisconsin on Friday. Polls suggest he has his work cut out here: In a poll released by NBC News/Marist last week, Romney trailed Obama by 17 points in Wisconsin.
"President Obama thinks he's doing a good job. No, I'm not kidding. He actually thinks he's doing a great job. An historically great job. According to the president, only Lincoln, FDR and Lyndon Johnson have accomplished more. And no, he didn't say that on 'Saturday Night Live,' " said Romney.
"It's enough to make you think that years of flying around on Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of 'true believers' telling you what a great job you are doing, well, that might be enough to make you a little out of touch."
Recall held more interest
Wisconsin marked the fourth consecutive Great Lakes primary won by Romney, after narrow victories in Michigan and Ohio and a double-digit win in Illinois. Wisconsin was clearly a tougher state for Romney than Illinois. The state's complement of rural and working-class Republicans gave Santorum hopes of doing well here, as he went from bowling alley to bowling alley in a symbolic play for blue-collar Wisconsin affections.
That effort showed Tuesday in the numerous counties Santorum carried outside southeastern Wisconsin, from the rural west to the much more populous Brown County in the northeast.
But it probably didn't help the former Pennsylvania senator that the presidential race took a back seat for most Republican voters to the consuming recall fight over Gov. Scott Walker. It may have made it harder for Santorum to push back against the perception in the media and the public that Romney's delegate lead was insurmountable.
"You're out running for president, then you come into a state and you're not the most important thing going on in the state right now," Santorum joked in a Waukesha speech Saturday.
Still, this was the most closely contested GOP presidential primary since 1980, when Ronald Reagan defeated George H.W. Bush 40% to 30%.
Exit polls showed that 60% of primary voters were Republican, 30% were independents and 11% were Democrats. The numbers suggest some portion of those Democrats were part of a "mischief vote" for Santorum aimed at extending the GOP contest: Santorum won Democrats 44% to 23% over Romney. But the effect of that on the outcome appeared to be very limited.
Wisconsin's Reince Priebus, the GOP's national chairman, said of Tuesday's outcome:
"Today, Wisconsinites went to the polls to cast their first votes against President Obama's reckless tax-and-spend policies."
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