The Republican establishment is increasingly lining up behind Mitt Romney in the race to choose a candidate to challenge President Barack Obama, finally giving clarity to a long and grinding nominating contest that has exposed deep divisions within the party.
Romney notched a convincing victory in the heartland state of Illinois, quickly followed by a surprise endorsement from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the brother of former President George W. Bush. There were also signs that major Republican campaign contributors are shifting more money in his direction.
Jeb Bush, an establishment figure within the party, had remained on the sidelines for much of the state-by-state primary contest. His backing helped give Romney the aura of inevitability that has eluded him for months, despite a formidable financial and organizational advantage over his rivals.
"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 statement. He congratulated the other candidates "for a hard-fought, thoughtful debate and primary season."
Still, the party coalescing around Romney was almost overshadowed by an aide's offhand comment.
One of his own top advisers, Eric Fehrnstrom, remarked that "everything changes" for the fall campaign. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch," he said. "You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again." An Etch A Sketch is a mechanical drawing toy that children need only to shake for the image to vanish.
The remark fueled criticism that Romney molds his principles to fit with political goals. Democrats pounced, and by day's end his Republican opponents were waving the draw, shake and erase toys at campaign events in Louisiana.
"The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same," the former Massachusetts governor said in Arbutus, Maryland, as Republicans and Democrats alike mocked him. "I'm running as a conservative Republican. I was a conservative governor. I will be running as a conservative Republican nominee — hopefully, nominee at that point. The policies and the positions are the same."
Conservatives in the South and elsewhere distrust Romney's record as a Massachusetts governor, particularly his embrace of a requirement for state residents to purchase health insurance. That initiative has drawn comparisons to Obama's health care reform, which Republicans staunchly oppose and hope to raise as a key issue in the November elections.
The primary race will go on, however. Romney's most dogged rival, Rick Santorum, is all but certain to claim more victories before the primary season ends. The conservative favorite looked ahead to this weekend's primary vote in the perhaps more welcoming Deep South state of Louisiana.
On Wednesday, Romney's Republican rivals quickly jumped on the Etch a Sketch remark.
In Louisiana, Santorum brandished an Etch A Sketch and told voters he is a candidate who stands "firmly on the rocks of freedom, not on the sands of an Etch A Sketch toy."
Gingrich stood on stage elsewhere in the state and explained to his audience just what the toys were. "Gov.Romney's staff, they don't even have the decency to wait until they get the nomination to explain to us how they'll sell us out," he said. "I think having an Etch A Sketch as your campaign model raises every doubt about where we're going."
Still, Romney's triumph in Illinois on Tuesday night provided fresh evidence of electoral strength.
Santorum, a Catholic who is favored by religious conservatives, now has almost no hope of overtakingRomney in the count of delegates who will choose the nominee at the Republican National Convention in August.
Romney picked up 41 delegates, to 10 for Santorum.
In The Associated Press count, Romney has 563 of the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination. Santorum has 263, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 135 and Texas Rep. Ron Paul 50. That gives the front-runner more than half, a pace that will let him seal his victory by the time the primaries end on June 26.
Another prominent Republican, former presidential candidate Bob Dole, gave Romney an additional boost Wednesday by suggesting that Santorum is getting close to a decision point on whether to stay in the race or pull out. Dole, who became the Republican nominee in 1996 on his third try, said Gingrich is "probably finished, or almost finished."
"Rick, I think, he's got a real problem. In every race, Romney is going to pick up delegates," Dole told The Associated Press in a telephone interview Wednesday. "It's getting close to the point where he's got to take a hard look at it."