WASHINGTON, United States of America – Republican voters handed Mitt Romney a resounding victory in Maryland on Tuesday, US networks projected, in what could be a pivotal three-win night for the frontrunner as he sharpens his quest for the White House.
Early returns showed Romney winning 53% of the vote in the eastern state, nearly double the 27% for his main rival Rick Santorum, while former House speaker Newt Gingrich and congressman Ron Paul were far back in third and fourth place.
Nomination contests were also held in the US capital Washington — expected to be in Romney’s win column too — and in Tuesday’s main prize Wisconsin, a state in the US Midwest where arch-conservative Santorum has fared far better than in the more moderate Northeast.
A tight Wisconsin battle has been playing out between Romney and Santorum, and polls show Romney ahead. Voting stations close there at 0100 GMT.
Should the three races go Romney’s way, Tuesday could be seen as the end of the beginning of Romney’s presidential campaign, as the likelihood of his securing the nomination will soar, allowing him to turn his full attention to challenging President Barack Obama in November.
Like a nominee
The Republican establishment has been steadily coalescing behind the former Massachusetts governor, and a triple win would leave Romney with more than half the delegates he needs to clinch his party’s nomination.
He is already acting like the nominee, training his political fire on Obama and his “government-centered society” and no longer mentioning his Republican rivals while on the campaign trail.
Obama on Tuesday also essentially helped kick off a new phase in the general election campaign, rebuking Romney by name in a speech and calling him to account for supporting what the Democratic president sees as a “radical” budget passed by congressional conservatives last week.
Obama accused Romney of championing cutthroat “social Darwinism” that neglects the middle class and favors the wealthy, and said the Republican candidate is seeking to institute such a budget on “day one of his presidency.”
Romney launched a spirited back-and-forth with Obama on Tuesday, signalling his eagerness to directly confront the president.
“This is a president who so misrepresents the policies and proposals of our party and of myself as well, and then fails to acknowledge the mistakes and the errors in his own record. It’s just astonishing to listen to him,” Romney said on the Sean Hannity radio show after Obama’s speech.
“There’s no question that under this president, this recovery has been the most tepid, the most weak, the most painful since the beginning of our recorded economic history.”
Romney has met stubborn skepticism from conservatives, who fear that the former governor of liberal Massachusetts will tack to the left once he wins the nomination in order to appeal to independents.
That scenario is fodder for Santorum, a harsh critic of abortion and gay rights who has tapped into conservative angst about the frontrunner.
But exit poll data from Maryland suggests Romney may be turning a corner with lower-income Americans and the most conservative of voters, people Santorum has counted on throughout the campaign.
Among Maryland voters who identified themselves as most conservative, it was a tie between Romney and Santorum, at 40 percent apiece, while those who said they were somewhat conservative voted overwhelmingly for Romney, 59 to 25%, according to CNN data.
Wealthy Marylanders earning $100,000 or more per year voted for Romney more than two to one over Santorum, but Romney won the under-$50,000 demographic as well, 40 to 33%, according to exit polls.
Despite pressure to bow out, Santorum is insisting on staying the course, announcing campaign stops for Wednesday in his home state of Pennsylvania, which votes April 24.
Wisconsin could be shaping up to be a critical point in the campaign.
“Ultimately, the winner out of this (Wisconsin) contest… is going to have some serious bragging rights,” Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus told CNN.
But he wouldn’t be drawn on whether it could spell the end for Santorum, a former senator, and Gingrich.
“We’ll see the fallout of tonight tomorrow,” he said.
Romney has won 21 out of 34 contests so far and amassed some 565 delegates of the 1,144 needed for the nomination. Santorum has racked up 11 victories and has less than half Romney’s delegate count. – Agence France-Presse