WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney won the Maryland Republican presidential primary broadly and deeply, besting chief rival Rick Santorum among conservatives as well as moderates and emerging as the runaway favorite of those who care most about beating President Barack Obama and fixing the economy.
In Wisconsin, Tuesday's other big contest, voters voiced the conviction that, like him or not, Romney is on his way to the GOP presidential nomination.
Romney's win in Maryland was expected: the dimensions of it, perhaps beyond expectations.
For only the fourth time in the long campaign season, Romney won the support of at least 50 percent who called themselves conservative, according to preliminary results of an exit poll. The only other such races were in Virginia, where Santorum wasn't on the ballot; Nevada, with a large Mormon population; and Massachusetts, where he was governor. It was also one of his best showings among evangelicals — they made up one-third of the Maryland primary electorate — who had been a strong constituency for Santorum.
Voters Tuesday were among the least conservative to cast ballots in a primary season that saw the Republican race pulled sharply to the right. Even so, nearly half in Wisconsin said Romney was not conservative enough for their taste. More than 4 in 10 said the same in Maryland. Santorum had no trouble convincing voters Tuesday of his ideological bona fides, and about 3 in 10 in each state described him as too conservative.
But it was also apparent that the contest was about much more than that.
In Maryland, those most concerned about the economy supported Romney over Santorum by nearly 30 percentage points. The economy was the top issue for about half of Maryland voters and an even bigger concern in Wisconsin.
Few voters in either state said they see the economy on the upswing. Only about a quarter in each state said the economy is improving. The next most important issue in both states: the budget deficit, which shaped how more than one-quarter of the primary-goers voted.
Romney won in Maryland among those age 45 and over, but he did best among seniors, besting Santorum by about 40 points. Santorum held an edge among those under age 45. But in nearly every other breakdown of voters — men and women, college education and not, rich and poor — Romney outperformed the field.
In both states, about 4 in 10 voters said the ability to beat Obama was the trait they most wanted in a candidate.
And in Whitefish Bay, Wis., Lana Adikes, 65, made the cold calculation that Romney was that candidate. "I think he's the only one who can do it," she said.
In the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, restaurant owner Earl Richter, 58, also felt that pull, but didn't give in to it. "I think anybody that can beat Obama is great," he said. "I think Mitt Romney will do just fine. But my principles or my beliefs are just more in line with Rick Santorum," so the former Pennsylvania senator got his vote.
The Supreme Court's hearing last week on the 2010 healthcare law brought that issue to the forefront of the nomination campaign. Santorum criticized Romney's record on the issue and appeared outside the Supreme Court to make the case that he is the candidate best suited to handle health care.
Wisconsin voters on Tuesday were split between Romney and Santorum as most trusted to manage health care policy, with about a third choosing each. About 1 in 6 said they trust Ron Paul most on the matter, 1 in 10 preferred Newt Gingrich.
About a third of GOP voters in each state said they were born-again or evangelical Christians.
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker earned an 82 percent approval rating from GOP primary voters in the early exit polling. Walker will face a recall election in June.
Exit polls in Maryland and Wisconsin were conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results among 1,153 Republican voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 25 randomly selected sites in Maryland, and among 1,063 Wisconsin GOP voters as they left 35 polling places across the state. Results from both states have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. D.C. voters were not surveyed.
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