Exasperated with a primary process as protracted as it has been vicious, Republican Party grandees are looking to see if Mitt Romney can at last regain an aura of inevitability in tomorrow's "Super Tuesday" contests across 10 states.
The suspense will be greatest in Ohio, a state that is a bellwether in national elections, a crucial target for Mr Romney and his principle challenger, Rick Santorum, and a place where both are spending heavily. Two polls showed them in a dead-heat for a state which offers a rich trove of 66 delegates to the national convention in August.
Mr Romney goes into tomorrow boosted by his wins in Michigan and Arizona last week, and by a symbolic victory in a non-binding straw poll in Washington state at the weekend. And in a sign that the party establishment wants to see the race effectively wrapped up, he was endorsed yesterday by a top-ranking Republican Congressman, Eric Cantor. Mr Romney, the former Governor of Massachusetts, whose campaign used Barbara Bush to speak up for him in automated, pre-recorded phone messages to voters in Vermont, can take some encouragement from the new Ohio polls. An NBC-Marist poll put him just two points behind Mr Santorum. A Reuters-Ipsos survey had them tied at 32 per cent each. Only a week ago, Mr Santorum was leading in the state by a double-digit margin.
Party leaders have privately long voiced their preference for Mr Romney over his surviving rivals, who also include Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, because he seems to be more electable as President. But they have been slow to publicly embrace him. The nod from Mr Cantor, the No 2 Republican in the House of Representatives, means this attitude is now starting to change. "What I have seen is a very hard-fought primary," Mr Cantor said. "Mitt Romney is the only candidate in the race who has put forward a bold, pro-growth, pro-jobs plan for the future."
Mr Santorum, whose main wells of support in Ohio come from the conservatives and Tea Party voters who say they want a candidate with strong family-value principles, predicted he would "do well" in Tennessee and Oklahoma and "very well" in Ohio and North Dakota. "This race narrows to two candidates over time, and that's where we have our opportunity," he said.
It is Ohio's nail-biter that will rivet the Republican Party. "This race could really go either way between now and Tuesday," said an Ipsos pollster, Chris Jackson. "If Romney is able to close this out and win this race, that gives him a leg up in going all the way to the convention and winning the Republican nomination."
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