Wednesday, March 21, 2012
Romney looks to seal the deal
Washington (CNN) -- Mitt Romney prepared for another Southern showdown in Saturday's Louisiana primary after a convincing victory in Illinois padded his delegate lead and he received the highly prized endorsement Wednesday of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
"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," Bush, the brother of one former GOP president and son of another, said in a statement.
The Bush endorsement, from a respected Republican leader once considered a possible presidential contender this year, added to the increasing air of inevitability surrounding Romney's campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
Romney "hasn't definitely won" the GOP race, CNN political analyst David Gergen said of the former Massachusetts governor's double-digit victory Tuesday in Illinois. "But in a campaign that has had many, many unexpected twists and turns, I think we may look back ... and say tonight was the final big turning point."
CNN analyst Erick Erickson, a longtime Romney critic, said the Illinois result showed "the writing's on the wall" for the rest of the field.
"This comes down to Mitt Romney," Erickson said. "Not only is he the frontrunner, but the nominee. This is a clear win for Mitt Romney tonight in a state with blue-collar voters, with industrial voters and suburban voters."
The Illinois victory appeared to follow established patterns so far in the Republican race, with Romney doing well in urban and suburban areas while top conservative rival Rick Santorum ran strong in rural areas.
In Chicago, Romney had 55% of the total with 99% of precincts reporting, while Santorum notched 25%, according to the city's election website. In Lake County, one of the surrounding counties near Chicago, Romney had 56% with all precincts reporting, according to the clerk's office website, and Santorum had 28%.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is battling Santorum for conservative support against the more moderate Romney, trailed well back, according to unofficial results from local clerks and election boards.
"We thank the people of Illinois for this extraordinary victory," Romney told supporters in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg Tuesday night. "Elections are about choices. Today, hundreds of thousands of people in Illinois joined millions of people in this country in this cause."
The results gave Romney at least 41 of the 54 delegates up for grabs in the state, increasing his total to 562, according to CNN's estimate. Santorum is second with 249, Gingrich third with 137 and Paul last with 69.
A total of 1,144 delegates are needed to clinch the GOP nomination.
The Illinois result led several observers to question whether the remaining GOP challengers can deny Romney the nomination to take on President Barack Obama in November.
"Here in a big state, Newt Gingrich has faded as a candidate," Gergen said, adding that "Santorum had a chance to go one-on-one against Romney, in effect, and Santorum somehow has gone off the rails in his campaign."
Romney's campaign trumpeted the Illinois showing as a broad-based triumph, seeking to overcome questions about their candidate's ability to win over the conservative GOP base.
"Romney won with tea party voters. He won with Catholics," campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said. "There are a lot of groups within the Republican Party, and Gov. Romney has won their votes."
In remarks to cheering supporters, Romney resumed his front-runner attacks on Obama's economic, health care and spending policies.
"The simple truth is this president does not understand the genius of this economy," Romney said, adding that "the American economy is fueled by freedom."
Santorum made some high-profile gaffes in the previous week. In Puerto Rico, he said the Spanish-speaking territory needs to adopt English as its principal language to become a U.S. state, and on Monday he said the unemployment rate "doesn't matter to me."
Romney's campaign jumped on the remark, but Santorum said that "of course" he cared about joblessness -- but his candidacy was "about freedom" rather than a particular economic figure.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, skipped Illinois on primary night and awaited the results in Gettysburg. In his concession speech, below a banner that proclaimed "Freedom," he said he was staying in the race to battle a government that he complained was "trying to order us around."
"This is an election about fundamental and foundational things," Santorum said, attacking Romney's claim of greater business and government management experience. "This is an election about not who's the best person to manage Washington or manage the economy. We don't need a manager, we need someone who's going to pull government up by the roots and do something to liberate the private sector in America." Santorum said he expected to do better in upcoming primaries and caucuses, adding: "We are feeling very, very good about winning Louisiana on Saturday."
So far, Santorum has made a strong showing in traditionally conservative Southern states, winning Alabama and Mississippi a week ago, while Romney finished third.
Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said the candidate plans to continue campaigning for upcoming contests in Louisiana, Wisconsin and North Carolina.
"Some of these states who typically are force-fed an establishment nominee at this point are getting to see the campaign up close and personal," Gidley told CNN's "John King USA." "They're going to get to see Speaker Gingrich. They're going to get to see Mitt Romney. They're going to get to see Rick Santorum. We'll see, as we move into the convention, just who people are gravitating behind."
Another Santorum victory in Louisiana would continue the pattern of the race so far, while a Romney win would signal growing support from the conservative base that he needs to finish off his rvials.
Romney's Illinois victory followed an overwhelming triumph Sunday in Puerto Rico, where Romney got 83% of the vote and picked up all 20 delegates at stake.
Gingrich, who appears increasingly unlikely to mount another comeback after two previous campaign surges, issued a statement Tuesday night blasting Romney for relying on his vast financial resources rather than offering "solutions that hold the president accountable for his failures."
"To defeat Barack Obama, Republicans can't nominate a candidate who relies on outspending his opponents 7-1," Gingrich said.
Saul, the Romney spokeswoman, responded: "That's like a basketball team complaining they lost to another team because their players were too tall."
"Fundraising is part of a campaign. So is organization," Saul said. Gingrich plans to head to Louisiana, as does Paul, the libertarian champion with a small but devoted following.
at 11:12 AM