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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