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.”
Considering the gap between Romney and Bush on immigration policy, it’s not surprising that the former Florida governor was among the last holdouts for Romney. “We now have an arranged marriage,’’ said Republican consultant Alex Castellanos, who has advised Bush and Romney on past campaigns. “We’re not marrying for love but for convenience, and I think that’s the way a lot Republicans feel. If we couldn’t wait to honeymoon with Mitt Romney we would have married him earlier. Now it’s inevitable.’’
There’s still no sign that Romney’s rivals — Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, Gingrich, a former House speaker, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas — are taking the hint. All three have sworn to battle to the convention in August in Tampa, Fla.
Next up is Louisiana’s primary on Saturday. The Mormon ex-governor of Massachusetts has yet to win a contest in the Deep South. Santorum, a devout Catholic who has put family values at the center of his campaign, is favored to win. Still, a Santorum victory on Saturday, followed by a slew of contests in Romney-friendly states, are unlikely to alter the daunting delegate math he faces.
“This process has been over for a while, it just won’t conclude, and I’m not sure that changes now,’’ Castellanos said. “For the party’s sake, I’d love to pivot and start focusing on beating Barack Obama instead of a death march to the convention.’’
Inside the American Legion hall, packed with about 350 people, Romney couldn’t help but gloat a little. “It’s an honor to be here with you and come fresh from a couple of great things,’’ he said, referring to his victories in Illinois and Puerto Rico on Sunday. He also recounted getting the call from Bush, whose endorsement he had long sought. “I picked up the phone and I didn’t even have to ask,’’ Romney said. “He said, ‘I want to let you know I’m endorsing you today.' "
Rommey didn’t mention his rivals and targeted his remarks at President Obama. “I see our president attacking economic freedom and he doesn’t know what he’s doing,’’ he said. The straight-laced corporate executive seemed more buoyant than usual. “Avoid politics and you can avoid what I’m in the middle of right now,’’ he joked to a fellow businessman in the audience.
At the Romney rally, some voters expressed anxiety about the longer-than-usual nominating contest. “I’m ready for it to wrap up. I think it’s an ego issue for the others now,’’ said Suellen Phelan, a 64-year-old retiree from nearby Pasadena. “We need to get behind the winner.’’
But other voters said they weren’t in a hurry, echoing the majority in the exit polls in Illinois. Sixty-six percent said they preferred their candidate winning over the race ending soon. “It’s long, but that’s OK,’’ said Terry Acra, an undecided 65-year-old voter from Ellicott City. “The longer it goes on, the more we learn.’’