By Niall Stanage - 03/22/12 12:18 AM EDT
Mitt Romney is now within touching distance of the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, after being ensnared for months in a tough battle.
Romney has taken a bound forward within the past 48 hours. His resounding win in Tuesday’s Illinois primary gave new impetus to his campaign’s drive to present him as the inevitable nominee. The endorsement he received Wednesday from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush further burnished the sense that influential figures in the GOP were coalescing behind him.
GOP strategists say Santorum faces an uphill battle just to remain credible in the race.
“The path to remaining competitive, for Santorum, narrowed,” Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak told The Hill, referring to the Illinois result. “It was the first win Romney has had in a big state with no caveat attached. The sense of inevitability around Romney is hardening.”
To be sure, Romney is not out of the woods yet. Even though Illinois offered a rare example of his besting Santorum even among supporters of the Tea Party, he faces continued distrust from many conservative activists.
Those problems were placed squarely in the spotlight once again Wednesday, when Romney aide Eric Fehrnstrom told CNN that the transition from a primary election to a general election was “like Etch A Sketch. You can shake it up and we start all over again.”
The comment was seized upon by Romney’s critics as evidence of the malleability of his principles. His rivals also pounced.
Newt Gingrich brandished an Etch A Sketch during a campaign appearance in Louisiana, which holds its Republican primary Saturday. “I think having an Etch A
Sketch as your campaign model raises every doubt about where you’re going,” he said.
Campaigning in the same state, Santorum targeted Romney and warned conservatives that “you take whatever he said and you can shake it up and it will be gone — and he’s going to draw a whole new picture for the general election.”
Although Romney’s delegate lead is clear, he might still struggle to fully secure the nomination — a goal that requires the acquisition of 1,144 delegates — by the time the primary process comes to a close in Utah on June 26. If that happens, the delegates at the Republican National Convention in Tampa in late August would hold his fate in their hands — and there is no telling what they might decide.
When it comes to reaching the magic number of 1,144, “Romney is making the argument to the others, ‘You can’t get there’. But the counterargument is, ‘Maybe you can’t get there, either,’ ” said Craig Robinson, a former political director of the Republican Party of Iowa.
“I think that is a valid argument,” Robinson said.
Yet for all the questions that remain in skeptical minds about Romney’s fealty to conservative principles — and his overall strength as a candidate — the quest to defeat him becomes more daunting for his challengers by the day.
“Santorum now must win Louisiana, he probably must win Wisconsin and he obviously must win Pennsylvania,” Mackowiak said. “That’s three must-wins in a row over four weeks.
“Romney’s problems [with some conservative voters] still exist, but they are not imperiling his chance to become the nominee,” he added.
Washington-based Republican strategist Ron Bonjean emphasized the importance of Bush’s endorsement, saying that it was “the beginning of a rallying around Romney. When high-profile politicians like that, who have been on the sidelines, step in and start endorsing, it’s a sign.”
He added that such a move would likely increase Romney’s significant financial advantages over the rest of the field.
“When people start rallying around Romney, the money spigot will really be turned on,” he said.
Bush himself focused more on the need for Republicans to come together than on emphatic praise for Romney in his endorsement statement.
“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,” he said.