A Mitt Romney victory in the Wisconsin Republican primary on Tuesday could all but end the party battle to pick a challenger to President Barack Obama in November.
The former Massachusetts governor, who as CEO of a private equity firm amassed a fortune worth an estimated quarter of a billion dollars, is predicting success in the upper Midwestern state as he shifts his campaign attacks almost solely to Obama and away from fellow Republicans who had turned the nominating race into an extended and politically messy battle.
Obama, who was vulnerable in his bid for a second White House term because of the ravages left behind by the Great Recession and near national financial meltdown just before he took office, has seen his prospects improve somewhat as a result of the Republican nomination fight and signs the economy is in a sustained recovery.
Even as Romney looked ever more likely to win the nomination, chief rival Rick Santorum said he would not give up just because the Republican party establishment believed voters "need Mitt Romney shoved down their throats.".
On Sunday morning, Santorum told NBC's "Meet the Press" that Romney is the wrong candidate to challenge Obama because of Romney's support for a health care plan in Massachusetts that was the basis for Obama's health care overhaul that Republicans vow to overturn. Santorum said he was now counting on a victory April 24 in the primary in Pennsylvania, the state he once represented as both a member of the House of Representatives and a Senator.
A day earlier, Romney was predicting victory in Wisconsin.
"We're looking like we're going to win this thing on Tuesday," Romney told supporters, suggesting he could also claim wins in Maryland and the District of Columbia that day. "If I can get that boost also from Wisconsin I think we'll be on a path that'll get me the nomination well before the convention."
The Wisconsin vote will be Santorum's last chance to prove his strength in the U.S. heartland, where he's said he can challenge Obama but where Romney has beaten him consistently.
One effect of the Republican nomination fight has been to push the once-moderate Romney far to the right of the political spectrum. He showed that again in remarks to more than 1,000 evangelical conservatives at a Faith and Freedom Coalition meeting in the heart of heavily Republican Waukesha County. The county is home to Wisconsin's largest evangelical mega-churches.
"President Obama believes in a government-centred society. He believes government guiding our lives will do a better job in doing so than individuals," Romney said. "We were endowed by our creator with our rights. Not the king, not the state, but our creator," Romney told the packed hotel ballroom who would later hear Santorum. Romney promised to restore religious freedom he and other Republicans have accused Obama of undermining, and "to protect the sanctity of life," a reference to an issue that has haunted him since his conversion from supporting abortion rights as governor of Massachusetts.
Romney received a healthy if not thunderous ovation from the group. However, Santorum, who has counted on like-minded activists in winning across the Bible Belt, did not do much better in appearing before the group. He described Romney's enactment of sweeping health care legislation as governor as disqualifying him from challenging Obama.
"Don't listen to the pundits ...They're telling you to give up on your principles in order to win," Santorum said. "Stand up for what you know is right for America. Stand up and vote your conscience."
With about half of the Republican nominating contests complete, Romney has won 54 per cent of the delegates at stake, putting him on track to reach the threshold 1,144 national convention delegates in June.
Santorum has won 27 per cent of the delegates at stake. The former Pennsylvania senator, who has described Romney as too moderate on key issues to effectively confront Obama, would need to win 74 per cent of the remaining delegates. Republican rival Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House of Representatives, would need 85 per cent.