By Josh Lederman - 04/04/12 01:30 AM EDT
Mitt Romney won Wisconsin’s primary Tuesday night, increasing the pressure on his rivals to exit the GOP presidential race.
The television news networks projected Romney as the winner at 9:30 p.m. ET, about 90 minutes after the polls closed.
Speaking like a general-election candidate, Romney connected a defense of his personal prosperity to an argument for the economic vision he sees for the nation.
“When you attack business and you vilify success, you’re going to have less business and less success,” Romney said. “In Barack Obama’s government-centered society, tax increases not only become a necessity, but also a desired tool for social justice.”
Romney’s victory in Wisconsin, coupled with two separate wins on Tuesday in less competitive contests in Maryland and the District of Columbia, was expected to push him past the halfway mark on the way to the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination.
But the race to 1,144 could become less important in the wake of Romney’s sweep on Tuesday, which came just as support from conservative leaders appeared to be coalescing around the former Massachusetts governor.
Democrats, too, appeared to have embraced the notion that the general election has started in earnest, with President Obama calling out Romney by name for the first time on Tuesday and airing a television ad directly targeting the former Massachusetts governor.
Exit polling suggested that Wisconsin voters remain somewhat apprehensive about Romney, but overwhelmingly believe he will be the GOP nominee. One in three Romney supporters polled said they have reservations about him, and about 6 percent said they voted for him because they didn’t like their other choices. But even among Santorum supporters, two out of three voters surveyed said they expected Romney would eventually win the party’s nod.
More primary coverage from The Hill:
• Romney wins Maryland primary
• Romney wins D.C. primary
• VIDEO: Triumphant Romney: On to Pennsylvania
• VIDEO: Santorum: We're beginning the 'second half'
• Gingrich issues statement about conservative platform
• Delaney wins Dem primary, will face Maryland Rep. Bartlett
Romney and Santorum both campaigned vigorously in Wisconsin, where a recall effort targeting Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) eclipsed the presidential contest and left the two candidates vying to see who could be more supportive of Walker’s anti-union efforts. Paul and Gingrich have both scaled back their presidential campaigns, and kept a mostly low profile in the days leading up to the Wisconsin primary.
For Santorum and his aides, who acknowledged they would likely place second in Wisconsin, attention had already turned to Pennsylvania, the former senator’s home state. Pennsylvania will hold its primary on April 24 — along with four Northeastern states that are favorable to Romney. Santorum is sustaining a single-digit lead in Pennsylvania over Romney, and sorely needs a win to back up his claims to continue relevance in the race.
Santorum has said he plans to stay in the race no matter the results in Wisconsin. But already he has admitted that the calls for him to exit the race are escalating.
“I get that question more than ‘How are you today?’ You know, this is the narrative that’s being stressed out there,” Santorum said Tuesday on CNN, noting that the calendar in April works against him. “We won a lot of states in March, we exceeded every expectation. We’ve done a great job in taking — you know, taking the seven loaves and fishes and turning it into 11 state wins.”
If Santorum can hold out until May, he could find renewed opportunities to question whether the Republican Party has united behind Romney as its nominee. Contests in conservative and rural states such as Kentucky, Texas, West Virginia and Arkansas in May play to Santorum’s strengths and could prove problematic for Romney.
But by that time, it could be too late. Romney’s dominance over the GOP field was underscored over the past week by endorsements from major Republican luminaries including former President George H.W. Bush, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Even those who were unwilling to announce a full endorsement, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), made it clear they see Romney as their party’s inevitable pick.
Romney, for his part, has already taken on the role of a general-election candidate. Romney will begin jointly fundraising with the Republican National Committee, according to multiple reports, and Romney’s campaign-trail rhetoric has increasingly focused on the president he hopes to face in November.
“There’s no question that under this president, this recovery has been the most tepid, the most weak, the most painful, since the beginning of our recorded economic history,” Romney told Fox News Radio on Tuesday. “And I’m including the Great Depression.”
—This story was updated on April 4 at 6:45 a.m.