CHICAGO — Mitt Romney’s big win in the Illinois primary didn’t end the fight for the Republican presidential nomination. But it may all but guarantee that after repeated slips and stumbles — including a fresh one hours after his victory — the former Massachusetts governor will lead the GOP into the fall contest against President Barack Obama.
Rick Santorum, Romney’s chief antagonist, is not going away anytime soon. He is almost certain to notch a few more victories, starting perhaps on Saturday in Louisiana, the kind of heavily rural, religious and deeply conservative state that has repeatedly backed the former Pennsylvania senator.
But mathematics and the political calendar — two things that no amount of money, wishing and campaigning can change — work against Santorum and appear to be steadily, irreversibly tilting the race in Romney’s favor.
In one of the strongest signals yet that party leaders want the contest to conclude quickly, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush ended his neutrality and announced Wednesday he was backing Romney.
“Primary elections have been held in 34 states, and 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 Bush, one of the party’s most prominent fence-sitters and coveted endorsers.
But even as Romney savored what could prove an important pivot point in the race, his campaign was thrown on the defensive by an aide’s remark on a morning talk show, which played to one of the candidate’s perennial problems: doubts about his authenticity.
Appearing on CNN, adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was asked whether the campaign was worried that the strongly conservative positions Romney had staked out in the GOP race would hurt him with more moderate voters in the general election. Some of those positions — on abortion, gay rights, global warming — have conflicted with stances Romney took earlier in his political career.
“Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Fehrnstrom responded. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch-A-Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”
Santorum was quick to pounce. “One thing you can say, even my staunchest critics will say, is what you see is what you get,” he told reporters at a campaign stop at an energy services company in Harvey, La. “[Romney] will say what he needs to say to win the election.”
Gleeful Democrats also piled on. In short order, the national party produced an online video featuring snippets of a grainy Romney inside an Etch-A-Sketch frame expressing, among other things, a desire to eliminate Planned Parenthood. “Some things you can’t shake off,” the video taunted.
Romney responded after a late afternoon appearance in Maryland.
“I’m running as a conservative Republican,” he told reporters at the American Legion Hall in Arbutus. “I was a conservative Republican governor. I’ll be running as a conservative Republican nominee. … The policies and positions are the same.”
The events reflected a pattern that has persisted throughout the Republican contest, with each important Romney achievement seemingly followed by some sort of gaffe. The latest was a gift for Santorum in that it hit on the very reason that many Republicans have held back from supporting the front-runner despite his repeated victories and growing lead in the all-important delegate count.
Even Bush’s endorsement was striking for its less-than effusive tone. His written statement — accompanied by a companion Tweet — seemed aimed more at ending the race than wholeheartedly embracing Romney.
The former governor responded with his own written statement, expressing “tremendous pride” and calling Bush’s decision “a key moment in the presidential contest.”
Santorum brushed off the endorsement, saying “the establishment has made their choice. I think the people of Louisiana are going to make a different choice.”
But a win Saturday, duplicating what Santorum has already achieved across the South, would probably not alter the dynamic of the contest the way an upset victory in Illinois — big, diverse, more moderate and less evangelical — would have.
It was not even close. Romney won the state by a convincing 12 percentage points. More importantly, he buried Santorum in the delegate competition, 41 to 10, with three still to be allotted.
With more than half the states accounted for, Romney now holds a commanding lead in the delegate count — he has more than twice as many as Santorum, his closest competitor — and is widening that margin with each contest.
It takes 1,114 delegates to secure the nomination and Romney has won 563, according to The Associated Press, followed by Santorum with 263. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who finished a distant fourth in Illinois, has 135 delegates and Texas Rep. Ron Paul has 50, according to the AP.
Two huge Romney advantages have been his superior political operation and the financial wherewithal — thanks to deep-pocketed contributors to a free-spending political action committee — to compete anywhere and everywhere that votes are being cast. Santorum and the other candidates have been forced to cherry-pick from the calendar.
In Illinois, that money didn’t just talk: It shouted from Chicago’s highest rooftops. Romney outspent Santorum 7-to-1 statewide, and more than 21-to-1 in the metropolitan area, airing a ceaseless barrage of negative advertising the former senator could not overcome.
Santorum also suffered from his hand-to-mouth campaign operation, failing to qualify for the ballot in four of the state’s 18 congressional delegates. That cost him delegates, as it has in other big states.
With the number of contests dwindling, the odds for Santorum to snatch the nomination from Romney are lengthening. The former governor needs to win about 45 percent of the remaining delegates to clinch a victory, compared to 70 percent for Santorum — far above his performance to date.
Worse, the calendar is growing less friendly for Santorum.
After Louisiana, the contest heads to Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., which vote April 3. (Santorum failed to make the ballot in the nation’s capital.) Then comes a three-week lag until April 24 and contests in five states, all favoring Romney save for the primary in Santorum’s home state of Pennsyvania.
While Wisconsin offers promise for Santorum — there are many social conservatives and blue-collar voters, who have been among the most resistent to Romney — the former governor’s supporters have already begun heavy advertising there. Santorum has spent small a relatively small amount in response.
Times staff writers John Hoeffel in Harvey, La., and Michael A. Memoli in Arbutus, Md., contributed to this story.