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Jeb Bush's endorsement of Mitt Romney signals GOP race may be winding down

Republican candidate Rick Santorum mocked the Romney campaign with an Etch A Sketch at a rally Wednesday in Mandeville, La.

Associated Press

Republican candidate Rick Santorum mocked the Romney campaign with an Etch A Sketch at a rally Wednesday in Mandeville, La.

He didn't stand before the cameras for a high-profile press conference. He didn't joyfully hoist Mitt Romney's arm into the air at a rally or signal unbridled enthusiasm.

But Jeb Bush threw his long-coveted endorsement to Romney on Wednesday. It marked a significant moment that may at long last signal the beginning of the end of the bruising Republican presidential primary, even if it was just a low-key press release from one of the few Republican giants still on the sidelines.

"Primary elections have been held in 34 states, and now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Gov. Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall," Bush, 59, said in a statement that congratulated all the candidates. "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."

The endorsement coming after Romney's 12-point Illinois primary win Tuesday is unlikely to nudge Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich or Ron Paul from the race, but it sends a loud message to donors, activists and other party leaders: Enough is enough.

The protracted, negative primary has turned off independent and Republican voters alike, while the Barack Obama campaign has been building formidable campaign organizations in battleground states like Florida. The longer it takes for Republicans to coalesce behind a nominee, many Republicans fear, the tougher the challenge in the general election.

"Facts are stubborn things, and the facts are that Mitt Romney's got a head of steam right now," said Florida GOP chairman Lenny Curry, who is neutral. "If everybody decided to stay in, and they wanted to talk about job creation and free enterprise in the months ahead that is helpful. But beating each other up is not."

Romney has won 563 delegates out of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination, according to the Associated Press, compared to 263 for Santorum, 135 for Gingrich and 50 for Paul. Barring a historic meltdown by Romney, it appears that at best his rivals might succeed in keeping the former Massachusetts governor from locking down the nomination before the August national convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum.

Even some of Romney's biggest conservative detractors have become resigned to his winning the nomination.

"Conservatives may not really like Mitt Romney, but they do not want a fractured party too divided to beat Barack Obama. There will be no white knight, no dark horse, and no brokered convention. We have our nominee," RedState editor Erick Erickson wrote after the Illinois primary.

One of Romney's top aides Wednesday did his part to remind everybody why so many conservatives are skeptical of Romney. Senior adviser Eric Fehrnstrom, fueling the view that Romney lacks core principles, suggested Romney would have little trouble winning moderate voters once the primary ended.

"I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes," Fehrnstrom said on CNN. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."

Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, seized on the comment while campaigning in Louisiana: "Well, that should be comfortable to all of you who are voting in this primary — that whoever you're going to vote for is going to be a completely new candidate, remove all trace of any kind of marks and be able to draw a new picture."

Gingrich, also campaigning in Louisiana in advance of its Saturday primary, carried an Etch A Sketch to his podium. The former House speaker handed the toy to a boy in the audience and quipped, "You can now be a presidential candidate."

Few Republican endorsements in the country are coveted as much as Bush's. The former Florida governor had been courted to run for president and had been mentioned dreamily as a white knight candidate (along with Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie) who might enter the race at the last moment.

Four years ago, Bush waited until after the nomination had been all but wrapped up to endorse Arizona Sen. John McCain. This year, he made clear he would not weigh in before Florida's Jan. 31 primary, though he has several times lamented the tone of the campaign, including some of the rhetoric on illegal immigration that might alienate Hispanic voters.

"Jeb's counsel and support will be critical in the coming months in my effort to defeat Barack Obama and turn around our country," Romney said.

John Stemberger, an Orlando lawyer and leading Santorum supporter in Florida, questioned how much difference the ex-governor's endorsement would make.

"Everybody respects Jeb, but he has become more of a figure representing the establishment Republican voter than the tea party conservatives and evangelicals," Stemberger said. "It might have been more influential early on, but this late in the game, I don't think it's going to have much effect."

Adam C. Smith can be reached at asmith@tampabay.com.

Jeb Bush's endorsement of Mitt Romney signals GOP race may be winding down 03/21/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 21, 2012 10:30pm]
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