Taking 3 States, Romney Looks Beyond G.O.P. Foes to Obama By JIM RUTENBERG and JEFF ZELENY
MILWAUKEE — Mitt Romney tightened his grip on the Republican nomination on Tuesday with a sweep of the primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, and found himself in his first direct engagement with President Obama, an unmistakable signal that the general election would not wait for internal Republican politics.
Mr. Romney emerged from the evening with substantial gains in delegates and a growing perception that he was winning over previously reluctant elements of the party. In winning the main battleground of Wisconsin, Mr. Romney led among strong Tea Party supporters and ran closely with Rick Santorum among those who consider themselves to be very conservative and among evangelical Christians, according to exit polls.
Mr. Santorum, who at one point led in polls here, said he would continue to compete for voters who “have yet to be heard” in the coming primaries, starting with his home state, Pennsylvania, on April 24.
But the day was in some respects the start of the general election. Mr. Obama for the first time singled Mr. Romney out by name, during a major address dedicated to the budget championed by Mr. Romney’s marquee endorser in Wisconsin — Representative Paul D. Ryan — which the president called “social Darwinism.”
“He said that he’s ‘very supportive’ of this new budget,” Mr. Obama said of Mr. Romney while speaking at a meeting of editors and reporters in Washington. Using a mocking tone, and referring obliquely to perceptions of his potential opponent’s elite pedigree, Mr. Obama added, “And he even called it ‘marvelous,’ which is a word you don’t often hear when it comes to describing a budget; it’s a word you don’t hear generally.”
Taking the stage to declare victory in downtown Milwaukee, Mr. Romney took his turn to strike general election themes. “President Obama thinks he’s doing a good job — I’m not kidding,” Mr. Romney said, speaking with a huge American flag behind him and an excited hall of supporters in front of him. “It’s enough to make you think that years of flying around on Air Force One, surrounded by an adoring staff of true believers telling you that you’re great and you’re doing a great job, it’s enough to make you think that you might become a little out of touch.”
Even as he assailed Mr. Obama as presiding over a “government-centered society,” Mr. Romney spoke in upbeat, elevated and optimistic tones that were steeped in themes of patriotism fashioned for a general election.
“The dreamers can dream a little bigger, the help wanted signs can be dusted off, and we can start again,” Mr. Romney said. “And this time we’ll get it right.”
Mr. Obama’s new focus on Mr. Romney represents a sudden but much-thought-out shift.
The White House had been content until now to watch the Republican race unfold on its own, and let Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney batter each other without its help.
But as Mr. Romney has started to solidify his delegate lead, unify his party and repair the damage to his favorability ratings from these past few months of hard campaigning, Mr. Obama’s aides decided to take their engagement to a new level on Tuesday.
The president will not directly confront Mr. Romney every day, aides said. That responsibility will largely be left to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the re-election campaign.
But the frequency of the television advertising is increasing, an intentional strategy of the Obama campaign to deny Mr. Romney a moment to rebuild from his long and bruising primary fight.
The Democrats have conducted extensive research on Mr. Romney, his positions and the early perceptions that voters may have of him. A key finding of polling and other surveys, advisers say, is that Mr. Romney remains undefined to a wide universe of people, a void that the Obama campaign is eager to fill while Mr. Romney is still trying to secure the nomination.
The president’s re-election team was initially planning to start directly confronting the likely Republican nominee in February — the week after Mr. Romney won the Florida primary — but the rapid rise of Mr. Santorum delayed the need for that effort.
Now, advisers to Mr. Obama say they are intent on keeping the arguments from the Republican race fresh in the minds of voters, including those who were not closely following the primary.
Mr. Obama, as he spoke about income disparity in America on Tuesday, outlined what his campaign hopes to make a central question of the presidential race: Should voters trust Mr. Romney, one of the wealthiest candidates in modern times, to be fair to them?
The Romney campaign and party leaders said the president’s new engagement proves that Republicans have no time to waste in uniting the party behind him, raising money and fending off such attempts before they can take root in the minds of voters.
Mr. Obama’s direct engagement with Mr. Romney may have raised his stature as the most likely Republican nominee. But Mr. Romney must also keep an eye on Mr. Santorum, who still retains some potential, however slim, to block him from reaching the 1,144 mark in the 19 Republican contests ahead.
And with the presidential race now operating on two distinct fronts, Mr. Romney has the dual task of seeking to dispense with Mr. Santorum even as he begins to directly confront the more impressive arsenal of an incumbent president.
Mr. Santorum was already turning his attention to Pennsylvania, where he hopes to revive his candidacy, and also predicted a win in the delegate-rich state of Texas late next month. Portraying this as the halfway point in the Republican race, Mr. Santorum, speaking in Mars, Pa., said, “Who’s ready to charge out of the locker room in Pennsylvania for a strong second half?”
Though Mr. Santorum leads in some polls in Pennsylvania, the surveys of voters leaving polls here in Wisconsin showed new signs that Mr. Romney was perhaps making critical final strides with the sorts of voters who have so far kept Mr. Santorum in the race — the strong Tea Party supporters and those calling themselves “very conservative.” Some of that seemed to be a reflection of Mr. Romney’s margin of victory here.
Whatever the final vote tallies, the results of Mr. Romney’s wins Tuesday were certain to put him that much farther ahead in the hunt for the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination before the Republican convention in August. He won the majority of the 100 delegates in play in the three contests Tuesday night. According to The Associated Press’s delegate tally, Mr. Romney had 646 delegates, Mr. Santorum had 272, Newt Gingrich had 135 and Representative Ron Paul had 51.
Mr. Romney’s campaign is hoping to rob Mr. Santorum of a victory in his home state, and, in the process, steal away his hopes of, at the very least, forcing an open convention where he would have a new shot at the nomination.
But during his speech in Milwaukee, Mr. Romney looked beyond the Republican primary fight and focused his anger exclusively on Mr. Obama, bringing the likely contours of a general election into fuller view while assuring Americans that he would restore the nation’s economic might.
“Those days are coming back. That’s our destiny. Join me,” Mr. Romney said. “Take another step every day until November 6th.”
Ashley Parker contributed reporting from Milwaukee, and Mark Landler from Washington.
The exact breakdown follows: Maryland
Romney 117,527 49% 37 delegates Santorum 69,020 29% 0 Gingrich 26,088 11% 0 Paul 22,698 9% 0
Washington, D.C. Romney 3,122 70% 16 delegates Paul 535 12% 0 Gingrich 477 11% 0
Wisconsin Romney 346,279 44% 33 Santorum 289,648 37% 9 Paul 87,896 11% 0 Gingrich 45,944 6% 0
These primaries were winner take all, so Romney got the lion-share of delegates. Santorum only got a couple from Wisconsin from the counties he did good in. Again, low turnouts cmopared to the overall population, expected in a Primary. D.C. had a particularly low one, though that can be attributed to the city's Democratic lean.
Demographics were similar again. In both states most voters were at least 45 and made at least 50k yearly. They were less religious than the primaries in the south like Louisiana more recently, with only a third claiming to be born again. Accordingly issues like abortion were less significant compared to the economy and budget deficit. They put more value on a candidate that could stand a chance at beating Obama. Both states at least 40% of those who volunteered to respond feel Romney isn't 'conservative enough', while a similar number think Santorum is 'just right' in his views.