PEWAUKEE, Wis. – Appearing ever-more confident in Wisconsin's primary, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney focused entirely on Democratic President Barack Obama during a campaign trip through this upper Midwestern battleground that could effectively seal the nomination for him Tuesday.
Fading rival Rick Santorum sought to stoke doubts about Romney's conservative credentials on the last weekend of campaigning before the critical showdown. It's Santorum's last chance to prove his strength in the industrial heartland, where he's said he can challenge Obama, but where Romney has beaten him consistently.
Still, Romney nodded toward evangelical conservatives Saturday, acknowledging the doubts in the former Massachusetts governor that linger with these voters, and foreshadowing the balancing act that will face him in the months to come.
"President Obama believes in a government-centered society. He believes government guiding our lives will do a better job in doing so than individuals," Romney told more than 1,000 Wisconsin conservatives at a Faith and Freedom Coalition meeting in the heart of GOP-heavy Waukesha County. The county, just west of Milwaukee, is home to the state's largest evangelical mega-churches.
Romney, tagged by opponents as rich and detached, appealed to the spectrum of households he will need in the fall should he remain on the likely course to the GOP nomination. He mentioned a single mother he met Friday in Appleton, Wis., a landscaper from St. Louis and a Cambodian immigrant from Texas, all while blaming Obama for "the most tepid, weakest recovery we've seen since Hoover."
Romney Saturday veered slightly from the strict general election message he's offered since winning big in the Illinois primary.
"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," an issue that has haunted him since his conversion to opposing 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 GOP nominating contests complete, Romney has won 54 percent of the delegates at stake, putting him on track to reach the threshold 1,144 national convention delegates in June.
Santorum has won 27 percent 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 percent of the remaining delegates. GOP rival Newt Gingrich would need 85 percent.
Maryland and the District of Columbia also hold primaries Tuesday. Santorum is not on the D.C. ballot but could pick up delegates in Wisconsin and Maryland, although Romney is favored in both states. A defeat for Santorum in Wisconsin would present him with a difficult choice: drop out, or continue wounded into the next round of primaries, an April 24 five-state Eastern gauntlet that favors Romney and includes Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania.
Still, cultural conservatives have struggled to embrace Romney.
On average, in states where exit or entrance polls have been conducted, white evangelical conservatives have made up about half of the GOP primary electorate.
Romney did not win in any of the eight states where they were a majority of voters, and he carried evangelicals themselves in just five states: New Hampshire, Nevada, Massachusetts, Virginia and Vermont.
Outside of those states, Romney has won on average 28 percent of votes among evangelicals, compared with a 37 percent average support for Santorum.
Even in states Romney won after hard-fought campaigns, such as Michigan and Ohio, he has struggled to appeal to white evangelicals. He trailed Santorum among evangelicals by 16 percentage points in Michigan, 17 points in Ohio.
Several primary voters at the forum Saturday voiced reservations about Romney, but said they would likely support him if he's the nominee.
"If he turns out to be the candidate, you bet I'll be behind him," Mary Ruth Gobek of Waukesha said. "But there's that hesitation, that question mark."
Romney sought to answer questions by heralding the recent endorsements by an array of Republican establishment and conservative leaders. Among them were Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and Utah Sen. Mike Bell, both tea party favorites. In Wisconsin, Romney was introduced by House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan, a local GOP hero and a rising national star. Ryan endorsed Romney Friday.
"I think there comes a point where this primary can become counterproductive," Ryan told the audience. "I think we need to coalesce around the person we think is going to be the best president and who gives us the best chance of realizing this vision."