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You know the drill: another week, another batch of Republican primaries. This Tuesday, it's Maryland, Washington, D.C. and Wisconsin taking their turns. Despite the three venues, all four GOP contenders campaigned exclusively in Wisconsin over the weekend.
Mitt Romney is ahead in the polls there, and there is a growing sense that a Romney victory could doom Rick Santorum's sputtering campaign and finally confirm Romney as the GOP's presumptive nominee.
NPR's David Welna was with both Santorum and Romney yesterday, and he filed this report.
DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: Mitt Romney had good reason to feel fired up yesterday. A couple of days earlier, he'd won the key endorsement of Paul Ryan, the influential House Republican Budget Committee chairman from Janesville, Wisconsin. Then yesterday, another big Wisconsin endorsement came from Tea Party-backed freshman Senator Ron Johnson. He and Ryan showed up in Milwaukee yesterday to campaign with Romney, and they led the candidate into what he thought was a ballroom full of supporters.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: April fools!
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
WELNA: In fact, just a few of Romney's staffers were in the ballroom to document his surprise at the April Fool's Day prank. But after a lunch that included fried cheese curds, Romney did face a real overflow crowd at a hotel just outside Madison. He did not even mention his remaining three rivals in the Republican primary. Instead, he aimed his rhetoric at President Obama and cast himself as on track for his party's nomination.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
MITT ROMNEY: This president can't run on his record, and so he's going to try in every way he can to divert to some other kind of attack and try and have people disqualify our nominee, which will probably be me.
WELNA: Romney also took on the vice president.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
ROMNEY: Did you hear Vice President Biden yesterday? He's out saying we need a new global tax. I don't know who he's planning on taxing with this, but I know -but he is the gift that keeps on giving, Vice President Biden. There's no doubt about that.
WELNA: That comment followed an appearance by Biden yesterday morning on CBS' "Face the Nation." Romney, he said, did not seem to understand what middle class people are concerned about.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FACE THE NATION")
VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I think that - I think Governor Romney's a little out of touch. Look, you know, everything that he said the American people don't think the policies have worked.
WELNA: But some of those who turned out to hear Romney yesterday said he actually managed to connect with them. Bill Rockwell is an independent who can vote in Wisconsin's open primary, and he says he may vote for Romney.
BILL ROCKWELL: Today, I think I was a little more convinced that he's actually a real person, that he isn't this monster-rich guy who nobody can relate to, and he can't relate to anybody else. So...
WELNA: But he didn't close the deal with you, apparently.
ROCKWELL: Well, I think he came closer to it.
WELNA: Eighty-three-year-old Nancy Works says she's voting for Romney because he's electable, and Santorum is not.
NANCY WORKS: I am a conservative, but Santorum is too far to the right to bring in independent voters and the RINOs, Republican-in-name-only types. And I think we need every vote we can get.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOWLING BALLS HITTING PINS)
WELNA: At the Pla-Mor bowling alley in Chilton, Wisconsin, Rick Santorum was once again trying his luck with the 10-pins. Asked how he was feeling about tomorrow's primary here, he replied: Great.
RICK SANTORUM: We're having a wonderful time and feel a lot of energy and excitement out here, and we're just hustling as hard as we can.
WELNA: And how crucial is winning in Wisconsin?
SANTORUM: Every place you compete is crucial, so we're - you know, we're working hard at it.
WELNA: And you're staying in the race?
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SANTORUM: I'm here.
WELNA: But not for long. Santorum plans to leave Wisconsin before tomorrow's primary, just as he's left other states early where polls foretold a loss.
Meanwhile, the Republican establishment is quickly closing ranks around Romney.
Here's Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell yesterday on CNN's "State of the Union."
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "STATE OF THE UNION")
SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: It seems to me that we're in the final phases of wrapping up this nomination. And most of the members of the Senate Republican Conference are either supporting him, or they have the view that I do, that it's time to turn our attention to the fall campaign and begin to make the case against the president of the United States.
WELNA: Still, Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul all say they have no plans to quit the race.
David Welna, NPR News, Middleton, Wisconsin.
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