Mitt Romney is winning where it matters: in collecting delegates and raising money.
With yesterday’s 12-percentage-point victory in Illinois over chief rival Rick Santorum, which netted about 42 of the 54 delegates at stake, Romney is almost halfway to obtaining the 1,144 he needs to capture the Republican presidential nomination. To finish the job, he must get 46 percent of the remaining delegates. By contrast, Santorum, who trails Romney by more than 2-1 in delegates, would have to win about 69 percent of the remaining number.
The former Massachusetts governor’s campaign also reported last night that it raised $12 million in February and entered March with $7.3 million in cash on hand, according to Federal Election Commission disclosure reports. Santorum reported raising $9 million last month, ending it with $2.6 million in the bank.
“Romney has the potential to seem virtually inevitable,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican polling expert unaffiliated with a campaign. “What he needs to do is put a string of wins together.”
The Romney campaign is looking ahead to primary races in Maryland and Wisconsin on April 3 and New York, Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island on April 24. In some of those states, his Massachusetts ties could boost his candidacy and continue his momentum.
His victory in Illinois follows his success on March 18 in Puerto Rico, a territory with 20 delegates that Santorum also courted at the expense of taking time to campaign in Illinois.
‘We’ve Had Enough’
Speaking to supporters last night in Schaumburg, Illinois, Romney focused on the general election, delivering what he called a message to the Democrat he hopes to beat in November, President Barack Obama: “Enough. We’ve had enough.”
In addition to his campaign’s financial edge, Restore Our Future, the political action committee backing him, raised $6.4 million last month and had $10.5 million in the bank at the start of March, according to its FEC report.
Restore Our Future, which can raise unlimited donations and is dubbed a super-PAC, also reported spending $12.2 million last month -- more than $400,000 a day -- to boost Romney’s candidacy.
Romney’s Illinois win helped him gain the endorsement of a marquee political name: former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, who had remained neutral as his party’s primary contest moved through Florida.
Bush, who many in the party encouraged to seek the presidency, urged Republicans to unify behind Romney’s candidacy. “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,” he said in a statement today.
He joins his parents -- former President George H.W. Bush and ex-first lady Barbara Bush -- and many top party leaders and elected officials in backing the former Massachusetts governor.
In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Santorum last night urged his supporters to “saddle up like Reagan did in the cowboy movies,” referring to President Ronald Reagan.
“We’re going to pick up a whole boatload of delegates and close his gap and on to victory,” he said.
His campaign sees the potential to stall Romney’s momentum in the next contest on March 24 in Louisiana, a state with a large population of evangelical Christians and anti-tax Tea Party voters who have resisted Romney in part because of his past support for abortion rights and his role in passage of a health-care overhaul in Massachusetts.
In the March 13 Mississippi and Alabama primaries, which Santorum won, almost 8 in 10 voters said they were born-again Christians or evangelicals, according to exit polls. That’s about double the percentage in Illinois, where Santorum won that group by 6 percentage points while losing the state.
“There’s no evidence to suggest that Romney’s winning the hearts and minds of conservatives,” said Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council, an advocacy group for evangelical Christians. “He’s still struggling with that and that’s going to continue.”
An Inconsistent Path
Romney’s path to win the nomination has been marked by a series of victories -- in states such as New Hampshire, Florida, Michigan and Ohio -- accompanied by defeats in such states as South Carolina, Tennessee and Oklahoma.
“He’s not done as well as we had hoped,” Arizona Senator John McCain, a Romney supporter and the 2008 Republican Party presidential nominee, said in an interview yesterday on Fox Business. “None of us do in campaigns.”
Still, there are signs Romney is expanding his support. Surveys conducted of Illinois Republicans leaving polling places showed Romney won Tea Party supporters by 8 percentage points, a group that is typically loyal to Santorum. He also won more than 70 percent of voters who said it was most important to have a candidate who could defeat Obama, according to polls done by the Associated Press.
Santorum aides said they are preparing for a difficult April, during which he could win his home state of Pennsylvania while faltering in the northeast, followed by a more competitive May, when voting moves back to the South to Arkansas and Kentucky on May 22.
Looking to May
“We view May as a very favorable month for Rick Santorum,” John Brabender, a senior strategist for the campaign, told reporters yesterday. “There’s a fantastic opportunity for some very large wins that go into Texas with momentum.”
The former Pennsylvania senator enters that phase of the campaign with a cash crunch. His campaign has less than half of what Romney has in the bank, and the super-PAC supporting him -- the Red, White and Blue Fund -- reported yesterday that it raised $2.9 million last month and had $364,582 in the bank.
Rather than attempt to surpass Romney in delegates, Santorum’s campaign has adopted a strategy of preventing its rival from reaching the 1,144 delegates and forcing a fight at the party’s convention in August.
“It’s very difficult for any candidate to get to 1,144 when you have a four-candidate race,” John Yob, a Santorum delegate strategist, said yesterday.
Pre-Illinois Delegate Counts
Before last night’s results, Romney had 522 delegates, Santorum 253, former U.S. Speaker Newt Gingrich 135, and U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas 50, according to the Associated Press.
Santorum’s campaign questioned that count yesterday, saying it didn’t allow for delegates awarded at county, district and state conventions. At those meetings, delegates aren’t distributed according to the results of the caucuses and primaries.
Santorum’s ability to defeat Romney in primaries is hampered by Gingrich’s continued presence in the race. Gingrich finished fourth in the Illinois results. In another sign of his fallen fortunes, his FEC reports released yesterday showed the Gingrich campaign has more debt than cash.
The former Georgia congressman raised $2.62 million in February and spent $2.8 million, according to his campaign. He reported having $1.54 million in cash, and $1.55 million in debts.
The super-PAC backing Gingrich, Winning Our Future, spent $5.8 million in support of his candidacy last month, helped by $5 million from Las Vegas Sands Corp. Chairman Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam. The couple also gave $10 million to the super-PAC in January. The Adelsons’ daughter, Shelley, gave $500,000 in February. The super-PAC reported having $2.3 million in cash at the beginning of this month.
Gingrich drew criticism when, instead of campaigning in Illinois, he spent March 18 viewing the early-blooming cherry blossoms in Washington with his wife, Callista, and security detail in tow.
“If Gingrich had the conservative cause uppermost in his thinking, he would strategically withdraw,” said Richard Land, president of the Nashville, Tennessee-based Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “The fact that he stays in tells me that it’s more about Gingrich than anything else.”
The presence of Paul also prevents an anti-Romney vote from coalescing around one candidate. Paul reported on March 16 that he had raised $3.3 million in February and had $1.4 million in the bank.