Steven Senne, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — The Republican establishment started to coalesce around Mitt Romney in earnest on Wednesday, with Jeb Bush and other leading Republicans pressuring Rick Santorum to leave the race after a thumping in the Illinois primary.
But, on what should have been a triumphant day, Romney also found himself having to defend his conservative credentials anew after one of his own top advisers quipped that the GOP front-runner's policy positions are "almost like an Etch A Sketch" in that they could be shaken away and redrawn.
"The issues I'm running on will be exactly the same," the former Massachusetts governor said in Arbutus, Md., 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."
The remark earlier in the day by adviser Eric Fehrnstrom fueled criticism that Romney molds his principles to fit with political goals. Democrats pounced, and by day's end his GOP opponents were waving the draw, shake and erase toys at campaign events in Louisiana.
It all nearly overshadowed the endorsement from Bush, the son of one president and the brother of another. He had stayed out of the race for months, and some party elders publicly had urged him to become a candidate as Romney struggled to close the deal with the conservative base of the party.
Bush refused, and on Wednesday he made his preference in the race known after Romney's double-digit Illinois victory.
"Now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Gov. Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall," Bush said in a written statement. He congratulated the other Republican candidates "for a hard-fought, thoughtful debate and primary season."
His backing comes amid 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. Romney is on pace to win the nomination in June. He has 563 delegates in the overall count maintained by The Associated Press, out of 1,144 needed to win the party nod. Santorum has 263 delegates, Newt Gingrich 135 and Ron Paul 50.
Hours after Bush weighed in, Bob Dole, the former Senate majority leader and a longtime Romney supporter, suggested that Santorum must decide soon whether to stay in or surrender his bid for the nomination.
"Rick, I think, he's got a real problem," Dole, who became the GOP nominee in 1996 on his third try, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "It's getting close to the point where he's got to take a hard look at it."
At the same time, 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.
Bush's support came as a surprise to the Romney campaign. The former Florida governor personally contacted Romney Wednesday morning to say he planned to make the endorsement.
Romney made one quick public appearance in Maryland on Wednesday ahead of the April 3 primary there. He planned to spend much of Thursday personally courting members of Congress and other officials in Washington.
But the Etch A Sketch remark threatened to dog him.
It happened early Wednesday on CNN when Fehrnstrom was asked if the extended primary fight "might force the governor to tack so far to the right it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election."
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