Mitt Romney’s campaign is moving straight into Pennsylvania after completing a three-contest primary sweep on Tuesday night, as he looks to close the deal in the Republican nominating contest by challenging Rick Santorum on his home turf.
Pennsylvania is just one of the five states voting in the next set of primaries on April 24. Santorum, though, is portraying the contest as a game-changer – predicting victory in the delegate-heavy state he used to represent in Congress.
Santorum urged party leaders Tuesday night to let the rest of America have a chance to weigh in on the race, and claimed Pennsylvania would “kick off the second half” of that battle.
But with Santorum far down in the delegate count, Romney is looking to deprive his rival of that trophy. His campaign plans to move resources into Pennsylvania, where Santorum leads in recent polls by single digits.
Following his primary wins Tuesday night in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, Romney is trying to pivot from Republican front-runner to presumptive nominee and emerge as the lone challenger to President Obama.
Romney, in some of his clearest language to date, used his victory speech in Milwaukee to map out what appeared to be his general election message. He portrayed Obama as an enemy of business, himself as its promoter. He portrayed Obama as the steward of a "government-centered society," himself as the champion of a revitalized "opportunity society."
In the most memorable line of the night, Romney accused "out-of-touch liberals like Barack Obama" of saying they want a strong economy while showing they "don't like" business.
"It's a bit like saying you like an omelette, but you don't like eggs," Romney said. He said Obama's vision would lead to high unemployment, "crushing debt" and "stagnant wages."
Romney also crossed a symbolic threshold Tuesday night, passing the halfway mark in his march toward the 1,144 delegate needed to clinch the nomination. He now has over 650 delegates, more than twice the number Santorum claims. Romney will win most of the 92 delegates at stake Tuesday.
Santorum, though, pledged to press on Tuesday night and outlined a path -- however narrow -- to victory in the nomination battle.
He hammered the point that only half the total delegates available in the GOP contest have been awarded, and predicted the April 24 primary in his home state of Pennsylvania could turn the tide.
"We have now reached the point where it's half-time," he told a Pennsylvania crowd, having long since left Wisconsin. "Who's ready to charge out of the locker room in Pennsylvania for a strong second half?"
Santorum continued to say Republicans need to pick somebody who can demonstrate a clear contrast with Obama in the fall.
"We don't win by moving to the middle," he said, claiming Republicans win by getting the middle to "move to us."
Though four other states are also voting on April 24, Santorum predicted a Pennsylvania win would effectively reset the mood.
"The clock starts tonight," he said. "After winning this state, the field looks a little different in May."
According to the latest delegate tally, though, Romney is at 655 delegates. Santorum is far back at 278, followed by Newt Gingrich at 135 and Ron Paul at 51. Santorum would have to win an overwhelming majority of the remaining delegates to surpass Romney. Even preventing Romney from hitting 1,144 before the convention is becoming increasingly difficult.
Romney dominated the field in Tuesday's contests. He appeared to have a double-digit lead over Santorum in Maryland, though his Wisconsin victory was a bit tighter. He blew past Gingrich and Paul in D.C., where Santorum had failed to qualify for the ballot.
With Romney moving ever-closer to the nomination, Obama's team is training its attention on the GOP front-runner. His campaign launched a new TV ad blasting Romney for the first time by name -- accusing him of backing "Big Oil" at a time of high gas prices.
Romney fired back in his Wisconsin speech, telling Americans that when they drive by the gas pump, "Ask yourself, 'Four more years of that?'"
Santorum has claimed all along that Romney is buying his support by spending millions on TV ads, and that his own campaign is backed by grassroots conservatives.
Indeed, Romney continues to face questions about his appeal among the conservative base going forward. Exit polls in the contests held Tuesday, though, showed the former Massachusetts doing well across several different demographic groups.
In Maryland, he captured almost half of the Tea Party vote and won 61 percent of support among seniors.
In Wisconsin, Romney saw some of the strongest support to date among those who describe themselves as very conservative. Romney captured 46 percent support among those voters, compared with 40 percent for Santorum.