Mitt Romney is shifting his focus to challenging President Barack Obama in the general election as Rick Santorum struggles to regain momentum for his campaign amid urging from party leaders to bring a swift conclusion to the Republican presidential nominating contest.
Romney’s campaign is moving to lock up the party nomination, seeking victories in a trio of primaries this week as a first step to effectively ending the primary campaign.
“I think the chances are overwhelming that he will be our nominee,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said of Romney in an interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” today. “It seems to me we’re in the final phase of wrapping up this nomination.”
Faced with pressure to withdraw from the race, Santorum vowed to continue his campaign if even he loses contests in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia on April 3.
“Look, this race isn’t even at halftime yet,” Santorum said on “Fox News Sunday.”
Trailing in delegates, Santorum faces an uphill battle for the nomination. With about half of the Republican nominating contests complete, Romney has 568 of the 1,144 delegates needed to capture the nomination at the party’s convention in August, according to an Associated Press tally. Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, has 273 delegates and would need to win about three-quarters of those remaining to become the party’s nominee.
Romney, 65, has also accelerated efforts to win the support of Republican officials across the party. Today, he picked up the endorsement of Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson, who described him as “ready, willing and able” to lead the country.
Johnson’s endorsement, along with the backing of other Tea Party favorites such as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, demonstrates that Romney is broadening his support beyond the establishment party figures that have long supported his candidacy.
“I just want to reassure every conservative: I’ve spoken to Mitt, I totally believe he is committed to saving America,” Johnson told voters at a pancake breakfast in Milwaukee today.
As he campaigns across Wisconsin this weekend, Romney has largely ignored his Republican rivals, keeping his message focused on the general election. He has framed the election as a fight for economic freedom, blaming Obama for a “tepid” recovery and saying the president’s economic strategy is a “bust.”
At a Republican Party dinner in Pewaukee last night, Romney promised to revive America, saying Obama has failed to recognize the country’s unique place in the world.
“It is always a great gift to remember that we have something no one else in the world has: We’re American,” he said. “I want to make sure we bring back that conviction to every man, woman and child around the world.”
As Romney’s campaign is focusing on November, so too are the Democrats. Vice President Joe Biden criticized Romney in an interview broadcast today on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” saying he “seems not to understand” the struggle of the middle-class Americans.
“Governor Romney’s a little out of touch,’ he said.
After losing primaries to Santorum in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, Romney is casting Wisconsin as the state that can deliver a knock-out punch.
‘‘We’re looking like we’re going to win this thing on Tuesday,” he said in Fitchburg, Wisconsin, yesterday, suggesting he could come out ahead in all three of this week’s contests. “If I can get that boost also from Wisconsin, I think we’ll be on a path that’ll get me the nomination well before the convention.”
The Wisconsin primary is Santorum’s last opportunity to demonstrate his strength in the industrial Midwest, a region where he has said he can compete effectively against Obama. Santorum held Romney to wins of three percentage points in Michigan and one percentage point in Ohio.
Santorum raised questions yesterday about Romney’s competitiveness against Obama in the general election, saying he couldn’t make a strong case against the national health-care law championed by Obama because of his support for a similar state law as governor of Massachusetts.
“It’s important to stand behind principled conservatives,” Santorum told voters in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. “It’s our best chance of winning.”
Lead in Poll
In a NBC News/Marist poll released March 30, Romney led Santorum in Wisconsin, 40 percent to 33 percent. Representative Ron Paul of Texas was third with 11 percent, and Gingrich was last at 8 percent. The telephone survey of 740 likely Republican primary voters was conducted March 26-27 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
The next contests will be on April 24 in Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Delaware -- states expected to favor Romney -- and in Pennsylvania, which Santorum represented in the House and the Senate.
Santorum is looking ahead to the April 24 primaries. He scheduled his April 3 election night party in Mars, Pennsylvania, near his hometown of Butler, and not in Wisconsin.
The Wisconsin primary is not “do or die,” he said today on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “We have to win Pennsylvania.”
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