WASHINGTON - With top US politicians hopping on his bandwagon and a rival conceding he will be the likely nominee, Mitt Romney is eyeing a Tuesday trio of wins to help him lock up the Republican presidential race.
The ex-governor of Massachusetts is forecast to win the April 3 contests in Maryland, the US capital Washington and the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, extending his lead in the fierce battle for the nomination to challenge President Barack Obama in November.
Romney has begun focusing exclusively on his likely upcoming general election battle with Obama. In a campaign speech Friday in Wisconsin, Romney did not mention his Republican rivals once, opting instead to highlight his and the president's "fundamentally different visions for America."
He cited various aspects of the slow economic recovery -- stubbornly high unemployment, soaring national debt and anemic growth in new small business start-ups -- to suggest Obama was smothering the American dream instead of nurturing it.
"President Obama did not cause the recession, but he most certainly failed to lead the recovery," Romney told an audience in Appleton.
"He failed to deliver on jobs, but on his goal to raise energy prices, he sure came through. All in all, President Obama prolonged the recession and slowed the recovery... His economic strategy is a bust."
With Romney on the path to securing the 1,144 delegates needed to be the party flagbearer, political historian Allan Lichtman said the candidate was doing the right thing by "not antagonizing" his Republican opponents.
"He's already playing the nominee, which is absolutely the right thing to do," the American University professor told AFP.
"He doesn't need to savage his opponents, he just needs to look presidential and make distinctions between him and Obama."
But the number two Republican in the race, arch-conservative Rick Santorum, continues to throw up roadblocks, drilling into suspicions that Romney is not conservative enough to carry the party's core voters.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, attacked Romney anew for unveiling a health care plan in Massachusetts that Obama used as a blueprint for his landmark but highly controversial health care reform law now under review by the US Supreme Court.
"I think he'll be destroyed by Obama on this issue in the fall," Santorum told CNN.
Americans need a candidate, Santorum insisted, "who's policy is written on his heart."
Romney is ahead in the nomination race with some 565 delegates, more than twice his nearest rival Santorum. And while April appears to be a cruel month for Santorum, with races in northeast and Midwestern states that favor Romney, he claims he has no plans to drop out.
When asked if he would carry on if he lost all three contests on April 3, Santorum said: "Our plan is to take this all the way."
The Republican establishment, however, is coalescing rapidly around Romney as the inevitable nominee, notably with the endorsement Friday of Congressman Paul Ryan, who was campaigning in his native Wisconsin this weekend with Romney.
The influential chairman of the House Budget Committee, whose controversial budget blueprint was approved by the House of Representatives this week and endorsed by Romney, told Fox News that Romney has "the skills, the tenacity, the principles, the courage and the integrity to do what it takes to get America back on track."
He also said a protracted primary race could hurt Republican chances in November.
"I think we're entering a phase where it could become counterproductive if this drags on much longer," Ryan said. "And so that's why I think we need to coalesce as conservatives around Mitt Romney and focus on the big task at hand, which is defeating Barack Obama in the fall."
Romney in recent days also earned the endorsements of former president George H.W. Bush and rising Republican star Senator Marco Rubio -- and even got a shout out of sorts by a rival in the race, Newt Gingrich.
The former House speaker, trailing a distant third, conceded on Friday that Romney would likely be crowned the nominee.
"Mitt Romney is clearly the frontrunner," he told a Wisconsin radio program. "I'm comfortable that the day he gets 1,144 delegates that we will all unify and support him... but I think he has to earn it, it's not going to be given to him."
Gingrich acknowledged that he met privately with Romney one week ago, and rumors swirled that he was making nice with the frontrunner -- after months of bitter sniping back and forth -- in hopes of a possible role in a Romney presidency.
Gingrich said it was one of several periodic meetings between the candidates and that no deal was struck.
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