By Steven Thomma, McClatchy Newspapers –
WASHINGTON — The Republican Party takes a three-week break from presidential primaries starting Wednesday, poised to rally at last behind Mitt Romney as its nominee but still facing a home-state stand from die-hard challenger Rick Santorum.
The three primaries Tuesday in Maryland, the District of Columbia and Wisconsin were expected to add to Romney’s growing lead in delegates needed to clinch the Republican presidential nomination. That lead has prompted many in the party establishment to urge Republicans to coalesce behind Romney and begin focusing on the fall campaign against President Barack Obama.
Santorum vows to stay in the race, though. He’s looking ahead to the next round of primaries on April 24, hoping for a win and a boost from his home state of Pennsylvania, which he served as a U.S. representative and a senator. All but ceding Wisconsin before the polls closed Tuesday, Santorum headed to Mars, Pa., to watch the returns there.
Early polls suggest a close race in the Keystone state, but other states voting in three weeks are Connecticut, Delaware, New York and Rhode Island, a Northeast lineup likely to favor Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
There were 95 delegates up for grabs Tuesday: 42 in Wisconsin, 37 in Maryland, and 16 in D.C. Each primary is winner take all; Romney was favored in each.
He and Santorum fought hard in Wisconsin, but Romney had the advantage of more TV advertising as well as the backing of popular Rep. Paul Ryan and local tea party favorite Sen. Ron Johnson.
About four in five primary voters in Wisconsin told exit polls they believed Romney will win the nomination.
Romney also had the advantage in Maryland. And he had an easy time in Washington, where Santorum was not on the ballot.
In an interview Tuesday, Romney told Fox News that it’s important for the Republicans to “get a nominee as soon as we can and be able to focus on Barack Obama.”
On Wednesday he will address U.S. newspaper editors in Washington, a day after Obama spoke to them.
Romney already had 572 delegates before Tuesday’s voting, exactly half the 1,144 needed to win the nomination, according to an Associated Press tally.