By DAVID ESPO
The Associated Press
WASHINGTON – It hasn’t been pretty, but the Republican establishment, the delegate math, the money and more are increasingly lining up in Mitt Romney’s favor in the long and grinding race for the party’s presidential nomination.
The race will go on. Romney’s most dogged rival, Rick Santorum, is all but certain to claim more victories before the primary season ends.
And an astonishing admission Wednesday by one of Romney’s top aides – that primary-season policy positions may be no more lasting than squiggles on a child’s Etch A Sketch drawing toy – hardly will reassure skeptical conservative Republicans. “Everything changes” for the fall campaign, said Eric Fehrnstrom.
Still, Romney’s Illinois primary win provided fresh evidence of electoral strength, produced a big delegate haul and paid an overnight dividend in the form of an endorsement from Jeb Bush.
“Now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall,” said the former Florida governor, the man most often mentioned as a last-minute savior for the party, who could swoop into a deadlocked convention and emerge with the nomination.
So far, Romney has benefitted from more than $32 million in TV ads from Restore Our Future, the entity that played the major role in wiping out Newt Gingrich with attack ads in the days before the Iowa caucuses and again in the Florida primary. More recently it has turned its attention to Santorum.
For comparison purposes, the $32 million is more money than Santorum, Gingrich and Ron Paul plus super PACs supporting them have spent combined on TV, and might be the reason Romney has been able to avoid dipping into his own personal fortune so far in the campaign.
Additionally, campaign finance reports released Tuesday showed that big donors to a GOP organization founded by political strategist Karl Rove have boosted their financial support for the Romney-aligned super PAC in recent months.
It’s taken months, far longer than anticipated, for Romney to begin to take charge of a race that he began with overwhelming financial and organizational advantages.
Yet in Illinois, he won more votes than Santorum and Gingrich put together, a far better showing than the grudging victories he eked out in Michigan and Ohio over the previous few weeks.
Romney’s delegate haul was even more impressive. He picked up 41, to 10 for Santorum.
There were more embarrassing moments for the former senator’s campaign. The candidate himself backpedaled after saying Monday that the economy wasn’t the main issue of the campaign. “Occasionally you say some things where you wish you had a do-over,” he said later.
The calendar, too, is a problem for Santorum, his objections aside.
“Saddle up,” Santorum exhorted his supporters Tuesday night after losing Illinois. He spoke not far from the historic battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa., where the tide turned decisively toward the better-equipped and financed Union in the Civil War.
“We’re almost there,” Romney said.