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Jeb Bush's Signal to Republicans: It's Time to End This Thing
His backing won't force Santorum and Gingrich out immediately, but it cements the idea
of Mitt Romney's inevitable nomination.
It's the ninth inning of the Republican presidential primary, and Mitt Romney just
brought his ace closer into the game. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's support of the GOP
front-runner, one of the race's most coveted endorsements, sends an unequivocal
message to Republicans everywhere that after a long, bitter primary fight, it's time to
unite behind Romney as the party's presidential nominee.
Bush's imprimatur won't strong-arm conservative insurgent Rick Santorum out of the
race, but, coming a day after Romney's commanding victory in the Illinois primary, his
support leaves the ex-senator from Pennsylvania suddenly in desperate need of another
primary victory to maintain credibility.
"Primary elections have been held in 34 states, and now is the time for Republicans to
unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job
creation to all voters this fall," Bush said in a surprise statement sent on Wednesday
morning. "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."
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Romney had locked in most of the GOP establishment after Texas Gov. Rick Perry's
campaign collapsed and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie declined to make a late entrance
into the race. But support from the former governor, son of former President and fellow
Romney endorser George H.W. Bush, could bring a second wave of endorsements from
GOP officials who have thus far stood on the sidelines, according to Phil Musser, a GOP
strategist and Romney supporter.
The list Musser ticked off included Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and former Mississippi
Gov. Haley Barbour, two powerful figures in the conservative movement who might be
swayed by a former colleague who has both policy bona fides and access to the vast Bush
finance and grassroots networks. "I think Jeb has enormous credibility, particularly with
Republican governors," Musser said. "I think his endorsement sends a strong signal to
people to get behind Romney, that it's time to coalesce."
A united front by GOP bigwigs could choke off fundraising and support for Santorum,
who is already struggling against the widespread perception of Romney's inevitability.
Tuesday's double-digit defeat in Illinois was another contribution to the political zeitgeist
that Santorum is only playing spoiler if he stays in the race.
Even Erick Erickson, editor of the conservative blog RedState.com and an ardent Romney
critic, conceded on Wednesday that the former Massachusetts governor will be the
party's nominee. "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," he wrote.
Santorum has a chance at a victory in socially conservative Louisiana, which holds its
primary on Saturday. He could enhance his credibility even more if he wins Wisconsin,
which is where Republicans vote on April 3. But while Louisiana is a Deep South state
where Santorum is heavily favored, Wisconsin closely resembles Midwest states like Ohio
and Michigan, where Romney has triumphed. And most of April features friendly Romney
territory, including Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York.
Whether Jeb Bush's endorsement will be as important among voters as it is with the
Republican establishment is uncertain. The former governor, a pragmatist who
performed well among moderate voters in Florida, reinforces the notion that Romney's
base lies in the party's upscale, secular wing, where he has run up huge margins thus far
in the primary. It's less clear if Bush can help Romney among the voters he has struggled
to court, the conservative evangelicals who have coalesced around Santorum.
The GOP's tea party wing might even be turned off by, and less inclined to back, a
candidate who continues to pile up establishment support. That was the populistflavored talking point embraced on Wednesday by those who hope to derail Romney.
Santorum said that the race was coming down to "the establishment, the money, versus
the people" and him. Asked in Harvey, La., if it was time for the party to come together,
he responded: "I agree, they should all start supporting me because I'm the strong
conservative candidate. As we've seen in every state, all the endorsers, the
establishment, who is comfortable with the status quo, go with Mitt Romney. And the
folks who want to see the real changes going on in D.C. support me."
R.C. Hammond, a spokesman for Newt Gingrich, called Jeb Bush's move "the completion
of the establishment trifecta." It was an allusion to earlier Romney endorsements by
Bush senior and former GOP presidential nominee Bob Dole.
The insurgents can take heart from Republican voters, who have signaled they're not
quite ready to end the primary process even if many GOP officials are. According to exit
polls from the Illinois primary, two-thirds of voters want to the campaign to continue
instead of seeing their candidate claim the nomination. That even includes about half of
the Republicans who voted for Romney.