Mitt Romney is within touching distance of securing the Republican presidential ticket after an emphatic 12-point victory in Illinois led to fresh calls from senior members of the party for his rivals to stand aside.
The front-runner was given a further boost yesterday (Wednesday) by the endorsement of Jeb Bush, the brother of former President George W Bush. "Now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters," said Bush, a former Florida governor.
His intervention, after months of declining to make an endorsement, was taken as a signal that it was now time to coalesce behind Romney and put an end to a bitterly divisive primary campaign that poll ratings show has damaged both the Republican Party and the candidates. Romney now has 563 delegates, a lead of 300 over Santorum in the race to achieve the "magic number" of 1,144 needed to clinch the nomination outright and face President Barack Obama in November.
"At some point the reality is going to set in that Mitt is the all-but-certain nominee," Romney's chief spin doctor, Eric Fehrnstrom, told CNN, adding that no deus ex machina was going to change the outcome of the race. Recalling Romney's decision in 2008 to step aside in similar circumstances for John McCain, Fehrnstrom said it was now time for Romney's rivals, Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, to consider doing the same.
"Mitt Romney made the decision - and it was a difficult one - to step aside. And he stepped aside because he thought it was good for the country, he wanted to give John McCain the time to rally the party and unite behind his candidacy," he said. Despite the rising pressure and the apparent inevitability of the outcome - Santorum would need to win nearly 70% of the available delegates to win the race, an all but impossible task - both men say they are committed to remaining in the race.
Both have attacked the relatively moderate Romney as an out-of-touch "flip-flopper" whose record on health care, abortion and contraception means he cannot win over the religious and rural conservative core of the party. "We need someone who has a strong and clear record who can appeal to voters all across this country. Someone you can trust," Santorum told supporters on Tuesday night, promising to carry on the fight to the Louisiana primary on Saturday.
"Someone who will stand and fight, not just because it's what the pollster tells them to say or what is on their teleprompter."