March 21 (Bloomberg) -- Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney got a boost for his campaign’s effort to paint his nomination as inevitable after a win in the Illinois primary led to an endorsement from former Florida Governor Jeb 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 this fall,” Bush, the son of one president and brother of another, said in a statement today.
Bush, who had remained neutral even as Romney claimed a 14- percentage-point victory in Florida’s Jan. 31 primary, is the latest top Republican to call for an end to the prolonged primary fight. He telephoned Romney today with his endorsement, according to a Romney campaign official.
“This is a key moment in the presidential contest and Jeb’s counsel and support will be critical in the coming months,” Romney, 65, said in an e-mail to reporters.
In defeating Rick Santorum in Illinois, the former Massachusetts governor chalked up his 20th win of a state or U.S. territory. Still, Romney will have to answer critics who question his conservative credentials and claim that he flip- flops on issues, including abortion rights.
Etch A Sketch
Santorum got some new ammunition today on the inconsistency point when Eric Fehrnstrom, a Romney senior adviser, suggested that his candidate will get a fresh start on policy positions if he wins the nomination. Fehrnstrom told CNN the situation is like a children’s toy that allows drawings to be quickly erased.
“I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign,” Fehrnstrom said. “Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again.”
Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley responded in a statement: “We all knew Mitt Romney didn’t have any core convictions, but we appreciate his staff going on national television to affirm that point for anyone who had any doubts.”
Santorum pounced on Fehrnstrom’s remarks while speaking to supporters at a Superior Energy Services Inc. warehouse in Harvey, Louisiana. Romney will draw “a whole new picture” for the general election, Santorum said.
Of his own candidacy, he said: “What you see is what you get.”
With 99 percent of Illinois precincts reporting, Romney led Santorum 46.7 percent to 35 percent, according to the Associated Press. Representative Ron Paul of Texas had 9.3 percent, followed by former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich with 8 percent.
Jeb Bush congratulated Romney on the victory and then joined his parents -- former President George H.W. Bush and first lady Barbara Bush -- in backing the front-runner.
“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,” Bush said.
He has no immediate plans to make a public appearance with Romney, according to a person familiar with the situation. Bush believes that, after Romney won in Illinois, the nation’s fifth- most populous state, it was time for the party to coalesce behind him, the person said, so he offered his endorsement.
His brother, former President George W. Bush, isn’t publicly backing a candidate.
Santorum brushed off Jeb Bush’s endorsement, saying Romney is “getting all the establishment Republicans.” The former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania told reporters in Harvey that Romney isn’t “someone that conservatives can or should trust.”
“They should all start supporting me, because I am the strong conservative candidate,” said Santorum, 53.
Some of the people who came to hear him today agreed.
“I would vote for Romney, only I would not be happy,” said Linda Terrebonne, 60, a retired Louisiana Clerk’s office worker who is supporting Santorum. She said her Bible study group before the event talked about honor and Santorum.
Santorum, stung by a loss in Illinois that undercut his claim to be strong in politically competitive areas, is trying to regain momentum by focusing on Louisiana’s March 24 primary. The South has proved a favorable region for him and his appeal to evangelical voters.
Romney, 65, proved in Illinois, as he did in Michigan and Ohio, that he can win large industrial states with primary electorates less centered on evangelical Christians. Yesterday’s victory was by a much larger margin than in Michigan and Ohio, where Romney won by 3 percentage points and less than 1 point.
After Louisiana this weekend, the nomination contest moves on to primaries on April 3 in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, D.C. Romney plans to campaign today in Maryland.
Illinois has 69 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the party’s nomination. The state’s voters directly elected 54, while the rest will be selected at a state convention later this year. As was the case in Ohio, Santorum failed to file a full slate of delegates, qualifying for 44 of the 54. Though Romney will win most of the Illinois delegates, Santorum can still collect some based on the vote in congressional districts.
Romney has 563 delegates, followed by Santorum’s 263, Gingrich’s 135 and Paul’s 50, according to the AP’s estimates.
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