Jeb Bush endorses Mitt Romney; calls for party to unite behind front-runner

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush endorsed Mitt Romney's presidential campaign on Wednesday and called for the Republican Party to unify around the former Massachusetts governor.

“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 a statement.

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The Romney campaign responded with a statement that looked to build on that sentiment, calling the endorsement a “key moment in the presidential contest.”

Bush, an influential figure in the party, made his announcement the day after Romney won a double-digit victory in Illinois' GOP primary.

His endorsement adds to Romney's momentum and serves as a sign that the Republican establishment is rallying around its frontrunner, who appears to have an insurmountable lead in the GOP delegate race.

President Obama's campaign team tried to down play the endorsement.

"It kind of felt like Jeb Bush was holding his nose in making that endorsement," campaign adviser Stephanie Cutter said on MSNBC.

Meanwhile Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) have refused to exit the presidential race, with Santorum and Gingrich both signaling their intention to stay in the contest through the GOP's convention in August.

The Gingrich and Santorum campaigns immediately looked to minimize Bush's endorsement.

“The Governor joins in supporting the establishment trifecta of moderates who lost in the fall: Bush, Dole, McCain,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond said in an email to The Hill, referring to Bush's endorsements in previous presidential cycles.

And the Santorum campaign tried to paint Romney as the establishment candidate that will bring more of the same to Washington.

“We’re doing this without the big-named endorsements, without the establishment endorsements,” Santorum spokeswoman Alice Stewart told MSNBC on Wednesday. “Rick is out there to get the endorsement of the American people and he is doing very well doing that.”

It’s an argument similar to the one Santorum used Tuesday night after losing in Illinois, in which the campaign sought to portray itself as the underdog without the resources of the establishment candidate.

But Santorum, who has emerged as Romney's primary challenger, has had a rough week since his March 13 victories in contests in Alabama and Mississippi. He lost Puerto Rico to Romney on Sunday and likely made a tactical error in visiting the territory, where Romney was favored. He could have used that time in Illinois, where he also lost handily to Romney.

Santorum has a shot of winning in Louisiana on Saturday, but in April the GOP map seems to favor Romney.

Many Republicans would love for the primary fight to end to give time for the party to rally around Romney and against Obama. Yet Romney has failed to win over many conservatives — which Santorum and Gingrich have used to justify their decisions to stay in the race.

There have also been questions about whether Romney will be able to win the 1,144 delegates required to clinch the GOP nomination.

Jeb Bush is the second member of the Bush family to endorse the former Massachusetts governor. His father, former President George H.W. Bush, endorsed Romney in December.

Bush was frequently mentioned as a dark-horse candidate to enter the presidential race if voters failed to coalesce behind one of the existing candidates, and he had remained neutral throughout the primary season, even as Romney notched a convincing victory in Florida, Bush's home state.

The former Florida governor said in his statement that the country faced huge challenges and that Romney was the best leader for the GOP.

“We face huge challenges, and we need a leader who understands the economy, recognizes more government regulation is not the answer, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism and works to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to succeed,” he said.

The endorsement also had the peripheral benefit for the Romney campaign, taking the focus off of a gaffe made by campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom earlier in the day. Fehrnstom compared the positions Romney has taken during the primary to an “Etch A Sketch” toy, which can be erased to provide a blank slate.

“It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch — you shake it all up and start over again,” he told CNN of the general election.

It may have just been a verbal slip, but it played into the storyline that Romney’s rivals have pushed, that the former Massachusetts governor is a flip-flopper and not committed to conservative ideals. Democrats hammered Fehrnstom on the slip but the Romney adviser joked about it on his twitter account.

When a reporter noted the length of time it took for the Romney campaign to release its official statement after the news of Bush endorsement broke, Fehrnstorm tweeted back: "Took a while the Sketch out the language."

— Daniel Strauss, Alicia M. Cohn, and Justin Sink contributed.

— This story was updated at 1:26 p.m.