With a big win in the Illinois primary Tuesday, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney built momentum on Wednesday to be the GOP challenger to Barack Obama in November, winning the key endorsement of former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida -- and drawing fire from the Democrats.
Romney won Illinois with 47 percent, while Rick Santorum was in second with 35 percent. Ron Paul took third with 9 percent, followed by Newt Gingrich with 8 percent.
Romney's roll continued when he won Bush’s endorsement. There had been much speculation that Bush, the son and brother of former presidents, would run for the Republican nomination and there has been buzz that the former Florida governor would emerge as the nominee if the GOP convention in Tampa is deadlocked come August.
“Congratulations to Governor Mitt Romney on his win last night and to all the candidates for a hard fought, thoughtful debate and primary season,” Bush said in a statement on Wednesday. “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. I am endorsing Mitt Romney for our party’s nomination.
"We face huge challenges, and we need a leader who understands the economy, recognizes more government regulation is not the answer, believes in entrepreneurial capitalism and works to ensure that all Americans have the opportunity to succeed," Bush added.
Bush echoed Romney’s call for Republicans to unify behind his candidacy. On Tuesday night, after the results came in from Illinois, Romney’s team sent out to supporters saying it was “time to close” the race for the Republican nomination.
In his victory remarks on Tuesday night, Romney ripped into Obama and stayed away from attacking his rivals for the Republican nomination.
“This administration thinks our economy is struggling because the stimulus was too small. The truth is, our economy is struggling because the government is too big,” Romney said. “You and I know what President Obama still has not learned, even after three years and hundreds of billions of dollars in spending: The government does not create prosperity; prosperity is the product of free markets and free people.
“This November, we face a defining decision. Our choice will not be one of party or personality. This election will be about principle. Our economic freedom will be on the ballot,” Romney continued. “I am offering a real choice and a new beginning. I am running for president because I have the experience and the vision to get us out of this mess. We know what Barack Obama’s vision of America is -- we’ve all lived it the last three years. Mine is very different.”
Democrats fired back, with South Florida U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, releasing a statement slamming Romney.
“Mitt Romney and his allies may have bought their way to another victory tonight in Illinois by outspending Rick Santorum and his allies 7-to-1 in the state, but it comes with a heavy price. His pandering to his party’s extreme-right flank is hurting him among moderates, independents and women voters,” Wasserman Schultz insisted. “Romney recently vowed to ‘get rid' of’ Planned Parenthood -- a vital health care provider for 75,000 Illinois women and families that provides affordable access to lifesaving services like breast- and cervical-cancer screenings.
“Romney’s embrace of the extreme tea party agenda continued again today when he applauded the new GOP budget, which turns Medicare into a voucher program, increases health-care costs to seniors by thousands of dollars, and makes arbitrary cuts to programs essential to middle-class families like education and clean energy,” Wasserman Schultz continued. “At every turn, and with each new extreme position, Mitt Romney continues to demonstrate he is out of touch with the values and issues that matter most to the middle class.”
Despite Romney’s increased momentum, his Republican opponents showed no showed sign of pulling out on Wednesday.
The Santorum camp ripped into a remark Eric Fehrnstrom, an adviser for Romney, made on CNN on Wednesday morning about the transition from the primary campaign to the general election.
“Is there a concern that Santorum and Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?” CNN asked Fehrnstrom on Wednesday.
“Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Fehrnstrom replied. “Everything changes. It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."
Hogan Gidley, a spokesman for Santorum, took on those comments on Wednesday.
"We all knew Mitt Romney didn't have any core convictions, but we appreciate his staff going on national television to affirm that point for anyone who had any doubts,” Gidley said. “With the two-year anniversary of the signing of Obamacare upon us, can voters really believe that the man who urged the president to use his health-care plan in Massachusetts as a model would really repeal Obamacare? Or is that promise just something they would 'shake up and restart' with when Romney hits the general election.
“Voters can trust that Rick Santorum will say what he believes, and do what he says,” Gidley added. “They may not always agree with Rick Santorum, but they can trust him because they know he is a man of principle. Clearly, the same cannot be said of Governor Romney."
Despite placing fourth in Illinois on Tuesday, Gingrich said in a statement on Wednesday that he intends to stay in the race until the Republican convention in Tampa. Gingrich also insisted that Romney is only leading the race because he is burying his opponents in spending.
“To defeat Barack Obama, Republicans can’t nominate a candidate who relies on outspending his opponents 7-1,” Gingrich said. “Instead, we need a nominee who offers powerful solutions that hold the president accountable for his failures. Over the past few weeks, my $2.50 gas plan has shown how America could have cheaper gas, more jobs and greater national security while putting the White House on the defense over their anti-American energy policies. This is the type of leadership I can offer as the nominee, and this campaign will spend between now and when the delegates vote in Tampa relentlessly taking the fight to President Obama to make this case.”
Paul is also showing no signs of pulling out of the race. On Wednesday, his team announced that their candidate would be taking part in two events in Louisiana on Friday, the day before the Pelican State holds its primary.
Reach Kevin Derby at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (850) 727-0859.