Romney may be able to relax after Wisconsin votes Tuesday

OSHKOSH, Wis. — Three months after the primaries started, Republicans in Wisconsin are glad to see the presidential campaign last long enough to reach them. And then they want it to be done, the quicker the better.

Around the state, many Republicans approach Tuesday's Wisconsin primary with a sense of inevitability that Mitt Romney will win the Republican nomination. They think the often nasty primary campaign is hurting the party. And they feel it's time for rivals Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul to fold up and help rally the cause for a fall campaign against Democratic President Barack Obama.

The sentiment among rank and file voters suggests a turning point in the campaign where Romney could start to take the nomination more for granted — though he cannot clinch the actual delegates needed for many more weeks — and turn more and more to challenging Obama.

"It's really exciting. We have a chance to be a player in the nomination," said David Richards, a plumber from Oshkosh who plans to vote for Romney.

Yet Richards is one of many who fears the campaign has gone on long enough, maybe too long already. "It's detrimental to the party. It's bitter and divisive, tearing down one another. The candidates without a chance should pull away and support the candidate who's going to win."

It's not just Romney supporters.

Mike Donnelly, a retiree from Neenah, plans to vote Tuesday for Santorum. Then, he said, it's time to rally around Romney.

"I'm for Santorum. But I don't think he's going to win. Romney's going to win," he said.

"I don't like it," he said of the long campaign, stretched out by new party rules designed to give voters in more states a say in the nomination. "It's dragging on too long. I don't like the mudslinging. Enough's enough. Let's pick a candidate and go after Obama."

Wisconsin is the biggest and most contested prize of the voting Tuesday, with 42 delegates up for grabs. Maryland has 37 delegates; Washington, D.C., has 16 at stake. Romney leads among delegates needed to win the Republican nomination, and is expected to add to that lead on Tuesday.

Polls show Romney leading Santorum in Wisconsin by an average of 40 to 32.5, according to the website Paul and Gingrich trail far behind.

A key reason is that Wisconsin looks a lot like other big Midwest industrial states where Romney has won, such as Illinois, Michigan and Ohio. And it doesn't have the large numbers of evangelical Christians that have helped Santorum win in such states as Alabama and Mississippi.

"The pattern of support is similar in Wisconsin as elsewhere," said Lee Miringoff, director of The Marist College Institute for Public Opinion. "The advantage for Romney is the Wisconsin GOP primary electorate more closely resembles states he has carried."

Indeed, even at a gathering of religious conservatives from the western suburbs of Milwaukee, Wisconsin voters were a little wary of Santorum's more open embrace of issues such as abortion and marriage, not to mention his criticism of the late John F. Kennedy for promoting the separation of church and state when he ran in 1960.

"I go to church every week. I do want God back in the Constitution," said Dave Barkei, a retired engineer from East Troy. "But he may be too religious. He makes me nervous. There still needs to be some separation between church and state."

Like others, Barkei was ready for the primary campaign to wrap up. "At some point, and Wisconsin will be that point, maybe it's time for the candidates to decide it's time to get together and get on with the mission."

Santorum brushes aside such talk.

Addressing a Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering Saturday, he insisted he can overcome the overwhelming odds against him and still win the nomination.

"One of the campaigns for president a week or so ago suggested that it would take an act of God for Rick Santorum to win the Republican nomination," he said. "I don't know about you, but I believe in acts of God."

Perhaps. But analysts and other politicians are starting to echo the voices of Wisconsin Republicans who say the nomination fight might be over.

"Santorum certainly has victories ahead, but that won't change the dynamic of the race," said independent political analyst Stuart Rothenberg. "Romney has won his party's nomination and the right to take on President Barack Obama in the fall."

Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., told the Faith and Freedom Coalition gathering that the primaries are starting to hurt the party by delaying the pint at which Romney can devote all of his time and money to Obama.

"This primary's been helpful. I think it's been constructive," said Ryan, who this week endorsed Romney. "But I think there comes a point where this primary can become counterproductive....I think we need to coalesce around the person who we think is going to be the best president."

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