WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney tightened his grip on the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday, sweeping three more primaries and setting the stage for what could be a final showdown on April 24 in Pennsylvania with home-state challenger Rick Santorum.
Romney won contests Tuesday in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and Wisconsin, assured of taking almost all of their combined 95 delegates, adding to his commanding lead in the tally needed to clinch the nomination.
With these three wins, he seized the mantle of inevitability as the party heads into a three-week break before the next round of voting, a period likely to see a growing chorus within the party establishment acclaiming Romney and pressing Santorum to drop out so Republicans can turn their energies to the general election campaign against President Barack Obama.
“We won them all,” an exultant Romney told supporters Tuesday evening as he turned his attention on Obama. “We won a great victory tonight in our campaign to restore the promise of America.”
Santorum vowed to stay in the race. He’s looking ahead to the next round of primaries on April 24, hoping for a win and a boost from his home state of Pennsylvania, which he served as a U.S. representative and senator. All but ceding Wisconsin before the polls closed Tuesday, Santorum headed to Mars, in southwestern Pennsylvania, to watch the returns there.
Early polls suggest a close race in the Keystone state, but other states also voting in three weeks are Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island, a Northeast lineup likely to favor Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
“It’s halftime. Half the delegates in this process have now been selected,” Santorum told supporters in Mars.
Santorum fought hard in Wisconsin, but Romney had the advantage of more TV advertising as well as the backing of popular Rep. Paul Ryan and local tea party favorite Sen. Ron Johnson.
About four in five primary voters in Wisconsin told exit polls they believed Romney will win the nomination.
In a primary-day interview, Romney told Fox News it’s important for the Republicans to “get a nominee as soon as we can and be able to focus on Barack Obama.”
Even before Tuesday’s results, Romney appeared unstoppable, according to the delegate math. He needed 46 percent of the remaining delegates including Tuesday’s. Santorum needed 70 percent, an all but impossible challenge, especially given a calendar that has such Romney-friendly big states as California and New York yet to vote.