MILWAUKEE (AP) — Mitt Romney tightened his grip on the Republican presidential nomination Tuesday night, winning the Maryland primary in a rout and bidding for victories in Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., with time left over to swap charges with President Barack Obama.
The Maryland victory enabled Romney to pad his already-wide delegate lead over Republican rival Rick Santorum, who is coming under growing pressure to abandon his own candidacy in the name of party unity.
Early Maryland returns showed Romney gaining 54 percent of the vote, compared with 26 percent for Santorum, 10 percent for Newt Gingrich and 8 percent for Ron Paul.
There were 95 Republican National Convention delegates at stake for the day, including 42 in Wisconsin, the only one of the three contests that a fading Santorum seriously contested.
Romney won at least 28 delegates in Maryland, with nine more yet to be allocated.
That gave him 600 of the 1,144 needed to clinch the nomination and on a pace to do so before the end of the primary season in June. Santorum had 272 delegates, Gingrich 135 and Paul 51.
Interviews with voters leaving Republican polling places in Maryland and Wisconsin showed an electorate more concerned with a candidate's ability to ability to defeat Obama than with the strength of his conservatism, his moral character or his stand on the issues. Similar soundings in earlier states have consistently worked to Romney's advantage.
Voters in both states were less apt to be born again or evangelical Christians than in most previous contests — 34 percent in Wisconsin and 32 percent in Maryland. Based on earlier contests, that, too, suggested an advantage for Romney.
Increasingly, Romney and many senior figures in his party have begun behaving as if the primaries are an afterthought, hoping to pivot to the fall campaign and criticism of Obama.
"He gets full credit or blame for what's happened in this economy and what's happened to gasoline prices under his watch and what's happened to our schools and what's happened to our military forces," Romney said of the president while campaigning in Waukesha, Wis.
Obama said things could be worse — and predicted they would be if Romney and Republicans got their way.
In a speech to the annual meeting of The Associated Press, he said a House-passed budget written by Republicans was "antithetical to our entire history as a land of opportunity and upward mobility for everybody who's willing to work for it ... It is a prescription for decline."
When he wasn't focusing his rhetoric on Obama, Romney prodded Santorum to quit the race, suggesting a refusal to do so could cost the party the election in November.
"The right thing for us, I think, is to get a nominee as soon as we can and be able to focus on Barack Obama," Romney said in an interview with Fox News. "You have to remember that it was Ross Perot that allowed Bill Clinton to win" in 1992, he added, a reference to the Texan who ran as an independent that year.
There was no immediate response from Santorum.
For Romney, the end of the contested primary campaign could hardly come soon enough. Obama has gained in the polls in recent months, particularly among women, as Republicans vie among themselves for support from a conservative party electorate. Santorum has devoted more time to social issues — including birth control — than Romney, who has generally stayed focused on economic issues.
Additionally, surveys indicate Americans are growing more optimistic about the overall state of the economy. Unemployment has fallen in recent months, but it is still at a relatively high 8.3 percent of the work force.
Santorum made little or no effort in Maryland, was not on the ballot in Washington, D.C., and concentrated much of his time in Wisconsin in rural areas.
He all but conceded defeat in advance in Wisconsin, retreating to Mars, Pa., for an election night appearance in his home state.
Wisconsin was the fourth industrial state to vote in a little more than a month after Michigan, Ohio and Illinois, a string that Romney has exploited to gain momentum as well as a growing delegate lead in the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
The former Massachusetts governor won a close Michigan primary on Feb. 28, then an even closer one in Ohio a week later, followed by a convincing victory in Illinois on March 20. At each turn, he was backed by his own robust, well-financed organization as well as a deep-pocketed super PAC that assured him of an overwhelming advantage in television advertising.
In Wisconsin, Romney and the super PAC, Restore Our Future, spent roughly $3 million on television ads compared to about $850,000 for Santorum and the Red, White and Blue Fund, a super Pac that supports the former Pennsylvania senator. Much of the Romney-aligned super Pac advertising consisted of attacks on Santorum.
As was the case in Michigan and Ohio, private polling showed Romney trailing in Wisconsin a few weeks before the vote. But he overtook his rival in public surveys as the televised attacks took their toll.
The surveys of voters in Maryland's and Wisconsin's GOP presidential primaries were conducted for AP and the television networks by Edison Research. They included preliminary results among 1,153 voters interviewed Tuesday as they left polling places at 25 randomly selected sites in Maryland, and among 1,063 Wisconsin voters as they left 35 polling places across that state. Results from both states had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
There was no survey in Washington.
Already, the early outlines of a general election ad war are visible. Obama's re-election campaign is airing commercials in a half-dozen battleground states that accuse Romney of siding with Big Oil "for their tax breaks, attacking higher mileage standards and renewables."
The ads are a rapid response to $3 million in commercials aired by an outside group, American Energy Reliance, blaming the president for rising gasoline prices.
In his campaign for the Republican nomination, Romney has collected endorsements from former President George H.W. Bush, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, a tea party favorite, and Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, author of a conservative budget that Republicans pushed through the House last week and is certain to play a prominent role in the fall campaign for the White House.
At the same time, Romney continues to struggle for support from some of the party's most reliable conservative voters. In the past five weeks, while winning across the Midwest, he has lost to Santorum in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, all part of the traditional Southern political base.
Pennsylvania is one of five Northeastern states with primaries on April 24, the next date on the Republican calendar after a three-week intermission.
Santorum has conceded he's not going to amass the delegates needed to win the nomination by the time convention opens, but his strategy — and hope — is to prevent Romney from doing so. Campaigning in Appleton, Wis., on Monday, he said a struggle at the convention over the nomination would be a "fascinating display of open democracy" and would encourage more Republican voters to participate in the election.
Romney wants no part of an open convention, and increasingly, senior party leaders agree and are willing to say so.
David Espo reported from Washington.