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 surprise 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, founder of the conservative blog RedState.com and an ardent Romney critic, conceded 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 Saturday. He could enhance his credibility even more if he wins Wisconsin, which where Republicans vote 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, including Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New York, is friendly Romney territory.
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 populist-flavored talking point embraced Wednesday by those who hope to derail Romney.