Mitt Romney's sweep of three primary contests on Tuesday strengthened his grasp on the Republican nomination while his chief but weakened rival, Rick Santorum, vowed to fight on in the state he represented in Congress.
Mr. Romney savored the trifecta of Wisconsin, Maryland, and Washington with a crowd of supporters in Milwaukee. Mr. Santorum had hoped to carry Wisconsin before the campaign moved on to Pennsylvania and the three other states that will vote in three weeks.
Mr. Romney concentrated on the candidate he expects to face in November, not the GOP rivals he had defeated.
Reprising the new stump speech he had unveiled in Wisconsin, he said, "Barack Obama's government-centered society, government spending will always increase because … there's no reason to stop it. There's always someone who is entitled to something more and who will vote for anyone who will give them something more.
"We know where that transformation leads. There are other nations that have chosen that path. It leads to chronic high unemployment, crushing debt, and stagnant wages."
"I don't want to transform America. I want to restore the values of economic freedom and opportunity and limited government that have made this nation the leader it is."
Mr. Santorum greeted his supporters in a half-filled ballroom in Marshall, Pa. The crowd of perhaps 200 was relatively subdued, reflecting the disappointing showing for their candidate. Trying to put the best face on the evening, Mr. Santorum said, "We have now reached the point where it's halftime, and who's ready to charge out of the locker room in Pennsylvania for a strong second half?"
The former Pennsylvania senator never mentioned the three states that had just voted nor by name the candidate who had won the lion's share of their delegates. His most direct reference to the increasingly entrenched front-runner was when he boasted that his convictions were "formed in steel, not on an Etch-a-Sketch."
Warning, as he has for months, that his party would be playing into Democratic hands by failing to nominate a strong conservative, he said, "We don't win by moving to the middle; we win by getting people in the middle to move to us."
Maryland and the District of Columbia were never in doubt, and the television networks and the Associated Press were able to call Mr. Romney the winner immediately after the polls closed. The Wisconsin call took just a little longer.
As they embark on their Pennsylvania campaigning, the candidates' first-day scheduling played to their strengths.
Mr. Santorurm planned a late-morning stop in Carnegie, in his old House district. Then he was heading to Blair County, in the more conservative center of the state, home to the rural, socially conservative voters who have been drawn to his campaign in earlier states. The Santorum campaign had announced that he would be joined at the Carnegie stop by the local congressman, Rep. Tim Murphy. But the Upper St. Clair, Pa., lawmaker begged off, with the explanation that he had a scheduling conflict.
In discussing the results of a new Mercyhurst College poll on Monday, its director, Joseph Morris, noted, not surprisingly, that Mr. Santorum's overall lead was enhanced by a stronger showing in the center of the state, while Mr. Romney did relatively better in the southeastern corner of the state.
While effectively conceding the Maryland and District of Columbia contests, Mr. Santorum had concentrated on Wisconsin, bouncing for most of the last week from fish fry to bowling alley to county dinner. Mr. Romney didn't make his first Badger State appearance until Friday, but in addition to his customary financial advantage, he was aided in an intense weekend of campaigning by the presence at his side of Rep. Paul Ryan, the House Budget Committee chairman who is hugely popular among the state's Republicans. He symbolized the increasing drift of the GOP hierarchy toward Mr. Romney after the long, bruising fight that began in Iowa.
Shortly before the polls closed, Hogan Gidley, Mr. Santorum's spokesman, said there was no chance that his candidate would heed the growing establishment calls for him to drop out of the race before Pennsylvania's April 24 contest.
"I think Pennsylvania is a pivotal state for our campaign, but it's defiantly a pivotal state for Romney's campaign too.
"[Everyone] understands from top to bottom that May is our month. If we have the momentum-builder going into May, its going to be a problem for Mitt Romney and, quite frankly, between Pennsylvania and Texas, those are two huge states for us."
The primary-night scheduling had telegraphed the expectations of the two camps, with Mr. Romney poised to celebrate his Wisconsin vote with Wisconsin voters in downtown Milwaukee.
Mr. Santorum was already looking ahead to the showdown in the state he represented for 16 years before his landslide rebuff in 2006. John Brabender, his longtime adviser, argued that the depth of that defeat was not an omen for the primary. He noted that while Mr. Santorum hemorrhaged support from independents and Democrats in that race, exit polls showed that he largely retained his support among Republican voters.
Three polls in the last few days have depicted Mr. Santorum with a small lead in his old state. A Quinnipiac University survey showed him leading Mr. Romney 41 percent to 35 percent. A Mercyhurst College survey released Monday found a similar margin, 37 percent to 31 percent, while a Franklin & Marshall poll last week showed a still narrower Santorum lead, 30 percent to 28 percent.
The Quinnipiac survey found that more conservative voters favored Mr. Santorum, 48 percent to 30 percent, while those who described themselves as moderates favored Mr. Romney, 45 percent to 29 percent. White evangelical voters in the survey overwhelmingly chose Mr. Santorum, 53 percent to 24 percent, but by a narrow margin, nonevangelical Republicans favored the former governor, 43 percent to 39 percent.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole is politics editor at the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O'Toole at: firstname.lastname@example.org, or 412-263-1562.