WASHINGTON — Fresh off a decisive victory in Illinois, Mitt Romney won critical establishment support Wednesday from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and got new help from former Sen. Bob Dole as he looks to unite the Republican Party behind his candidacy. Romney said he's "almost there" after pursuing the GOP nomination for six years, and there are fresh signs that big GOP donors and other party figures will follow Bush's lead after sitting on the sidelines for much of the primary season.
The son of one president and the brother of another, Bush had stayed out of the race for months. Some party elders publicly had urged him to become a candidate when it looked like Romney was having trouble closing the deal. On Wednesday, a day after Romney won Illinois by 12 points, Bush signaled that was no longer the case.
"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 written statement that suggested the race is all but over. He congratulated the other Republican candidates "for a hard-fought, thoughtful debate and primary season."
Dole, the former Senate Majority Leader and a Romney supporter, suggested that rival Rick Santorum is getting close to a decision point on whether to stay in or surrender his bid for the nomination. Dole, who became the GOP nominee in 1996 on his third try, said former House Speaker Newt 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."
Bush's support came as a surprise to the Romney campaign. The former Florida governor personally emailed Romney Wednesday morning to say he planned to make the endorsement.
Romney had emailed supporters Tuesday night that his Illinois win "means we are that much closer to securing the nomination, uniting our party, and taking on President Obama." He urged the party to fall in line behind his bid, saying "We are almost there." The former Massachusetts governor planned to spend much of Thursday personally courting members of Congress and other officials in Washington.
Still, the front-runner's campaign ran into some trouble Wednesday after a senior adviser compared Romney's policy positions to an "Etch A Sketch" toy, suggesting they could easily change to appeal to more moderate general election voters.
"I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes," said the adviser, Eric Fehrnstrom, during an interview on CNN. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch. You can kind of shake it up and restart all over again."
Asked to clarify the remark, Fehrnstrom didn't back way from the comment. He said only that the general election is "a different race, with different candidates, and the main issue now becomes" exclusively President Barack Obama.
The comment played into the caricature of the former Massachusetts governor as someone who readily changes his positions to accommodate political realities. Romney supported abortion rights, for example, when he ran for governor of Massachusetts. Now he says he opposes abortion.
Romney and his allies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more than Rick Santorum and his backers in Illinois, and it showed in Tuesday's results: Romney trounced Santorum by 47 percent to 35 percent.
Campaign finance reports released Tuesday showed that big donors to a GOP political organization founded by political strategist Karl Rove have boosted their financial support for Romney in recent weeks.
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