Fresh off a decisive victory in Illinois, Mitt Romney won critical establishment support from former Florida Governor Jeb Bush as he looks to unite the Republican Party behind his candidacy.
Romney said he is “almost there” after pursuing the GOP nomination for six years, and there are fresh signs big GOP donors and other party figures will follow Bush’s lead after sitting on the sidelines for much of the primary season.
The son of one president and the brother of another, Bush had stayed out of the race for months. Some party elders publicly had urged him to jump into the race when it looked like Romney was having trouble closing the deal. Yesterday, a day after Romney won Illinois by 12 points, Bush signalled that was no longer the case.
“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,” Bush said in a written statement that suggested the race is all but over. He congratulated the other Republican candidates “for a hard-fought, thoughtful debate and primary season”.
Romney had emailed his supporter that his Illinois win “means we are that much closer to securing the nomination, uniting our party, and taking on President Obama”. He urged the party to fall in line behind his bid, saying: “We are almost there.”
The former Massachusetts governor and his allies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more than Rick Santorum and his backers in Illinois, and it showed in the results: Romney was beating Santorum by 47% to 35%.
Campaign finance reports showed that big donors to a GOP political organisation founded by political strategist Karl Rove have boosted their financial support for Romney in recent weeks.
For all that money, though, Romney’s Illinois win was a victory without an electrified electorate: turnout seemed likely to be among the lowest in decades: Officials in several election districts said turnout hovered around 20%.
“You could draw a bigger crowd at a Green Bay Packers rally in downtown Chicago than what Mr Romney delivered to the polls,” Democratic senator Dick Durbin of Illinois said on CBS’s This Morning.
Romney was the clear favourite among Illinois Republicans, who were most concerned about picking someone who is capable of taking on Obama.
Romney’s wife, Ann, suggested earlier this week that it was time for the party to coalesce behind him. And in an appeal to the centrist independents who will decide the general election, Romney pledged to work with Democrats or “die trying”.
“Tonight was a primary, but November is a general election. And we’re going to face a defining decision as a people,” Romney said during a victory speech to supporters. “We know what Barack Obama’s vision is. We’ve been living it these last three years. My vision is very, very different.”
Romney picked up at least 41 delegates in Illinois, according to initial results, adding to his delegate lead and making it that much harder for any of his rivals to deny him an opportunity to take on the president in November.
Romney was moving on to Maryland, but opened Wednesday by tweeting a “Happy Anniversary” message to his wife, complete with a wedding photo from 1969. His campaign released a web video in which Mrs Romney recounts the details of their dating-to-marriage story.
Polls show Romney has the advantage heading toward Maryland’s Apr 3 primary. But the South, where Louisiana votes on Saturday, has proven less hospitable.
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