ARBUTUS, Md. — Hoisting his newest trophies — a landslide win in Illinois and an endorsement from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — Mitt Romney came to this Baltimore suburb on Wednesday for a victory lap aimed at bringing the marathon Republican primary to a close.
The rout in the Midwest, followed hours later by the blessing from one of the GOP’s most respected figures, amplified calls by the Romney campaign and its allies for his flagging rivals to bow out. Polls suggest the increasingly brutal and protracted race is taking a toll on the image of the likely nominee and the Republican Party, particularly among the independent voters who will be critical in November.
Romney has more than twice as many delegates as his nearest competitor, Rick Santorum, whose path to the nomination looks increasingly improbable.
“We can see how this is going to end up, and it’s healthy for conservatives and the Republican Party to start gearing their resources toward the general election,’’ said American Conservative Union Chairman Al Cardenas, a former Florida Republican Party chief who has worked closely with both Jeb Bush and Romney. “Republicans are concluding that they’ve seen enough. I have no doubt others will follow Governor Bush’s example.’’
But in keeping with the rhythms of a wildly unpredictable primary in which momentum is fleeting, Romney had little time on Wednesday to rest on his laurels. A top Romney adviser’s ill-chosen comparison of the campaign to an Etch A Sketch’ child’s toy in a CNN interview triggered an onslaught of mocking commentary from the Santorum team and from Democrats eager to portray Romney as a flip-flopper on major issues. Hoping to keep the line of attack alive in the national media as it grows increasingly skeptical of Santorum’s prospects, Santorum campaign spokeswoman Alice Stewart staked out the parking lot outside the Romney event and handed out the small drawing boards to reporters as they went in.
Romney clarified his adviser’s remarks after the rally at an American Legion hall in an extraordinarily brief press conference. He took only one question. Predictably, it was about the Etch A Sketch metaphor.
“Organizationally, a general-election campaign takes on a different profile,’’ he said. “The issues I’m running on will be exactly the same.’’
The tardy, tepid endorsement from Bush exposed another potential Romney vulnerability. Immigrant advocates seized on the nod from Bush, who has championed comprehensive immigration reform, to hammer Romney for a hard-line stance they say is alienating Hispanic voters. Romney opposes legislation that would allow undocumented residents who attend college or sign up with the military to earn legal status, and he has suggested “self-deportation’’ as a way to crack down on illegal immigration. Iris Martinez, chairwoman of the Democratic Party’s Hispanic caucus, called Romney “the most extreme presidential nominee of our time on immigration.’’
Bush made no mention of immigration in his one-paragraph statement, which was focused more on rallying Republicans to defeat President Obama than on praising the likely nominee. A spokeswoman said Bush has no plans right now to campaign with 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,’’ Bush said in the statement.
Bush has remained steadfastly neutral through the race, refusing to endorse a candidate even as the contest arrived on his home turf for the critical Jan. 31 Florida primary. Romney prevailed there without Bush’s help, stomping on rival Newt Gingrich’s momentum with a commanding win. More than anything else, Bush has played the role of level-headed party elder, occasionally stepping into the fray from the sidelines to caution against red-meat rhetoric— particularly on the subject of immigration.
“I used to be a conservative and I watch these debates and I’m wondering, I don’t think I’ve changed, but it’s a little troubling sometimes when people are appealing to people’s fears and emotion rather than trying to get them to look over the horizon for a broader perspective,” Bush said in Dallas in February. “I think it changes when we get to the general election. I hope.”
Bush, the cochairman of the Hispanic Leadership Network Conference, penned an op-ed in The Washington Post before the Florida primary, outlining the steps the Republican candidates need to take to win back Hispanic voters. Bush even came to then-GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry’s defense in late September when the Texas governor was under assault for supporting tuition breaks for the children of illegal immigrants. He told National Journal that he thought it was “a fair policy.”