Mitt Romney looked to strengthen his grip on the Republican presidential nomination and broaden his lead in the delegate count with a win in all three of the primary contests being held Tuesday.
The former Massachusetts governor entered today's slate of primaries in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin with hopes of winning all three — not just for the sake of delegates, but to score a critical blow to rival Rick Santorum's hopes of staying relevant in the GOP primary as well.
Steven Senne / AP
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney greets people during a campaign stop April 3 at a Cousins Subs fast food restaurant, in Waukesha, Wis.
A primary that has stretched on longer than many political observers had expected appears to be nearing its end. National Republican figures like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan ended their silence in the primary campaign and endorsed Romney in recent weeks, in part to hasten the end of the primary and allow Romney to pivot toward the general election.
With Romney widely expected to win in Maryland and the District; Wisconsin emerged as the true battleground among Tuesday's contests. Santorum had spent the better part of the last week courting the state's voters (though he'll spend election night in Pennsylvania), and unleashed some of his harshest criticism of Romney to date.
Although Rick Santorum has claimed the Wisconsin primary isn't "do or die," pretty much everyone else seems to disagree. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.
"A moderate Massachusetts governor is not going to make that strong contrast. He'll pull out the etch-a-sketch," Santorum said Monday in Menasha, where he expressed hopes of scoring an "upset" tonight versus Romney.
It would take an upset of sorts for Santorum to beat Romney in the Badger State. The Romney campaign and a supportive super PAC outspent Santorum and the former senator's allies 4-to-1 in Wisconsin. And polling has suggested that Romney has an advantage in the state. The former Massachusetts governor led at 40 percent to Santorum's 33 percent in last week's NBC News/Marist poll.
Exuding confidence, Romney, whose campaign has shown a consistent eagerness in shifting the fight to the general election and President Obama, has refocused his stump speech away from Republican rivals and toward the incumbent president.
"You know I think all of us in the contest are focusing more and more on President Obama as we should," he said Saturday in Fitchburg, Wis. "I've got a ways to go before I get 1,144 delegates, so I'm not counting the delegates before they hatch. But I'm going to keep working very hard and hope I get a good strong send off from Wisconsin. I got a good boost from the folks in Illinois, and if I can get that boost also from Wisconsin, I think we'll be on a path that will get me the nomination well before the convention."
Presidential candidate Mitt Romney hopes to score a decisive victory in today's Wisconsin primary, while keeping an eye on the general election. NBC's Garrett Haake reports.
At stake on Tuesday was an opportunity for Romney to move closer to shedding the "presumptive" qualifier and becoming the Republican Party's presidential nominee, though that formal distinction won't be made until he wins the necessary delegates.
The Obama campaign at least appears to have identified Romney as is likely foe. They assailed Romney as a stooge for Big Oil in their second TV ad of the cycle, which will air in key swing states.
Both Obama and Romney also delivered dueling policy addresses on Friday that were strongly tinged with general election politics, another suggestion that the general election has begun in earnest.
But as Romney's comment on Saturday suggested, there's still a ways to go until he secures the necessary delegates to win the nomination. Romney has accrued 490 total delegates through March 24, according to NBC News' count. Santorum had won 203, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was at 137 and Texas Rep. Ron Paul had won 34. A total of 92 delegates are at stake in Tuesday's three contests.
The next major set of primaries will arrive in three weeks, when five states in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic hold their primaries. Those states are seen as favorable to Romney, but none are more important than the contest in Pennsylvania, Santorum's home state. If the former Pennsylvania senator were to lose there to Romney, it would almost assuredly end Santorum's longshot hopes of becoming the GOP nominee. A Quinnipiac University poll released Tuesday found Santorum leading by 6 percent among likely Republican primary voters, 41 to 35 percent.