WASHINGTON -- The "worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama," at least as far as Rick Santorum is concerned, took another few steps closer in his inevitable walk to the GOP nomination Tuesday night, winning primaries in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia.
In a primary campaign that has been volatile at times, with pundits regularly proven wrong before they finish their soundbites, the chattering class appears to have gotten the main thing right: Mitt Romney is going to be the nominee.
"Tonight, I'm asking the good people of Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island to join me. Join me in the next step toward that destination of November 6th, when across America we can give a sigh of relief and know that the Promise of America has been kept," said Romney affirming the victory.
The former Massachusetts governor swept his remaining rivals, shutting off one of the final opportunities for Santorum to shake up the race.
Romney pulled out the Wisconsin win despite a series of stumbles, including his top aide suggesting the campaign was much like an Etch-A-Sketch, news that Romney's newest home needed a car elevator, and Romney's "humorous" story about his father closing a factory and laying off 4,000 workers.
Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has been relegated a non-factor, and Newt Gingrich is making little attempt to give the impression he is running a serious campaign -- though vowing to remain in the race nonetheless.
The former Pennsylvania senator, meanwhile, is rallying Tuesday night in Mars, Penn., which votes in three weeks. It's a last stand for Santorum, and for many Pennsylvanians, the entire primary will have been worth it if they can head to the polls and end Santorum's run, much as they ended his Senate career in 2006.
Santorum will be campaigning, at least for the time being, without Tim Murphy. The campaign was forced to send out a second public schedule Tuesday to note that the Pennsylvania House member would not, in fact, be campaigning with Santorum, citing a "scheduling conflict."
But even if Santorum does manage to carry Pennsylvania, his string of losses is quickly stripping it of importance. That same day, voters in New York, Rhode Island, Delaware and Connecticut also will go to the polls, meaning that Romney is poised to win the delegate battle that night regardless of Santorum's performance in Pennsylvania.
Santorum had been hoping to stretch the race into May, when a host of Southern and conservative states vote, but he has run out of time.
The party establishment is coalescing around Romney. Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson and Rep. Paul Ryan both endorsed Romney and are expected at his celebration Tuesday night. The Republican National Committee is operating as if Romney is the winner, and Gingrich's benefactor, Sheldon Adelson, more or less declared his man's bid over.
For Richard Land, an evangelical leader, a failure to win Wisconsin is a fatal blow for Santorum, he told Politico. "I think it becomes very, very difficult to see a pathway for him to reach the nomination," he said. "At that point, I think most conservative political leaders would say, you know, we need to get behind Romney and let's see if Romney can close the deal."