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.