Romney expected to pass delegate halfway mark after Tuesday

A wave of high-profile endorsements, coupled with beautiful weather and brisk turnout in Tuesday's primaries should help Mitt Romney build on his lead in the battle for the GOP nomination.

Contests in Maryland, The District of Columbia and Wisconsin have 98 delegates up for grabs, and the former Massachusetts governor is predicted to win a sizable chunk of them.

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Wisconsin is the biggest prize (with 42 delegates) and the closest contest, according to recent surveys. 

Romney was projected the winner in both Maryland and Washington shortly after the polls closed at 8 p.m. ET.

Romney’s main rival, Rick Santorum, did not appear on the ballot in D.C., and polls showed Romney with a double-digit lead in Maryland.

Despite Santorum not being on the ballot, the District's contest (with its 19 delegates) counts, and coupled with the Maryland primary — which awards its 37 delegates winner-take-all at the statewide and congressional district level — Romney could emerge from the Middle Atlantic contests adding some 50 delegates to his lead.

That should push Romney — with 568 delegates, according to ABC News — over the halfway point in the race for the 1,144 necessary to capture the Republican nomination, while increasing pressure on Santorum, who trails with just 273 delegates.

In Wisconsin, state election officials are reporting solid turnout and pleasant temperatures, helping ease Romney campaign concerns of voter complacency.

"I'm hearing we've got good turnout, although I don't have any numbers — it's all anecdotal," Wisconsin Government Accountability Board spokesman Reid Magney said.

The state sent out more than 70,000 absentee ballots, and unseasonably warm temperatures and clear conditions seem to be driving voters to the polls.

"It's a nice day in Wisconsin today," Magney said.

Also helping the Romney campaign: strong support from the Wisconsin congressional delegation.

Most of the popular Republicans in the state are behind Romney: He’s been endorsed by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), three hard-line conservatives popular with the Tea Party.

Wisconsin GOP Reps. Tom Petri, Reid Ribble and Sean Duffy haven’t endorsed a candidate, though Petri backed Romney in 2008. His office did not respond to a question asking why he hasn’t endorsed anyone this cycle. The most powerful Republican in the state, Gov. Scott Walker (R), has also stayed on the sidelines.

A Wisconsin electorate distracted by the high-profile recall election of Walker, officially authorized late last month after nearly 1 million residents joined a petition demanding a new election, is also expected to benefit Romney.

The recall election isn’t until June, but it has been the talk of the state since Walker drew the ire of many by pushing through a controversial bill banning public-sector unions.

That controversy may have helped Romney, who has spent heavily in Wisconsin, and hurt Santorum, who has struggled to generate low-cost local coverage as easily as he has been able to in other states, especially in the state's major media market of Milwaukee — mainly because the recall election has overshadowed the presidential race.

“The people here in Wisconsin are so wrapped up with the state elections and the recall, they haven’t gotten all excited about the presidential race,” said Don Taylor, the chairman of the Waukesha County Republican Party, one of the most powerful GOP groups in the state. “The TV has been talking more about the recall elections — it’s definitely taken a lot of the oomph out of this.”

Polling shows a similar trend.

"Our polling shows people are more focused on the recall than on the presidential race," said professor Charles Franklin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "More people said they’d vote in the primary for the governor’s race than they’d vote in the presidential race today. That’s pretty unusual."

Concerns raised by the Romney camp earlier in the week about misprinted ballots that would have delayed results in the state — and possibly created the perception of a contest too close to call — also seemed overblown, with state election officials saying Tuesday that the offending ballots had all been replaced before voters got to the polls.

Even if Santorum is able to outperform the poll data in Wisconsin — as he managed to do in Ohio and Michigan — Romney has built a sizable lead in the Badger State. A We Ask America poll conducted Sunday showed Romney with an 8-point lead over the former Pennsylvania senator.

The promising weather extended to primary contests in the East, where voters had intriguing local races to draw them to the presidential primaries.

Elections officials in Maryland said early reports were of a light turnout, although the state distributed nearly 25,000 absentee ballots before Election Day and reported that more than 76,000 voters had stopped by the polls earlier this week. Those numbers are roughly in line with the state's 2010 voting totals, foreshadowing a solid — if unspectacular — turnout in the Old Line State.

Turnout should be partially driven by a wild primary contest in Rep. Roscoe Bartlett's (R-Md.) new district, which was redrawn to include swaths of heavily-Democratic Montgomery County, just outside of Washington.

Five Democrats a vying for the opportunity to face off against Bartlett in a seat Democrats are treating as a crucial part of their effort to make up ground in the House — assuming the five-term congressman can survive a primary challenge of his own from a half-dozen Republicans.

The night's third primary contest — in the nation's capital — should also see decent turnout. But voters in the heavily Democratic District of Columbia will likely be more interested in city council races than an Republican primary that awards 19 delegates.

Santorum's campaign looked to frame the misstep in a favorable light Tuesday, with campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley telling MSNBC his candidate won't "pick up a single vote in D.C. because of the vitriol D.C. has for a someone like Rick Santorum who wants to shake things up."