"Wisconsinites have spoken!" Rep. Paul Ryan said as he introduced primary winner Mitt Romney at a victory party in Milwaukee Tuesday night. "Republicans are unifying!"
Wisconsin voters did indeed speak, and they gave Romney a victory in the state's primary, with 42 percent of the vote to 38 percent for Rick Santorum, 12 percent for Ron Paul, and six percent for Newt Gingrich.
And many Republicans appear to be unifying. After Romney's victory speech, he walked a few steps off stage and was met by Ryan, Sen. Ron Johnson, and longtime Rep. James Sensenbrenner, all of whom endorsed Romney in recent days. In fact, in the course of the primary campaign, most of the Wisconsin political elite got together behind Romney -- and that was after Romney scored huge national GOP endorsements from the party's future, Marco Rubio, and its past, George H.W. Bush.
But are Republicans united? Not as long as the winner takes Wisconsin by a decidedly non-blowout margin, winning 42 percent of the vote to his opponents' combined 58 percent. Commenting on CNN about exit polls showing Romney led among Wisconsin voters who decided in the final days before the election, Gingrich adviser Kellyanne Conway asked, "Romney got 45 [percent] in the last few days -- what's keeping him from 55?"
Of course, the losers want to minimize Romney's accomplishment, which Tuesday included not only victory in Wisconsin but also wins in Maryland and the District of Columbia. Romney's main opponent, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, didn't just minimize those Romney's wins -- he ignored them altogether.
When it came to choosing a place to spend election night, Santorum skipped the states that actually voted on Tuesday and instead headed to a hotel in Mars, Pennsylvania, north of Pittsburgh. And even though he again outperformed pre-election polls -- the last RealClearPolitics average of surveys in Wisconsin had Romney leading by 7.5 points, but in the end Santorum closed to just four -- Santorum never once mentioned the fact that there were elections elsewhere on Tuesday or that somebody else won all of them. Instead, Santorum, saying the race had reached "half time," focused almost exclusively on his home state, which holds its primary April 24, after a three-week break in the Republican schedule.
"Who's ready to charge out of the locker room in Pennsylvania for a strong second half?" Santorum asked the crowd. "We've got three weeks to go out here in Pennsylvania and win this state. And after winning this state, the field looks a little different in May."
But only if Santorum wins Pennsylvania. By choosing to spend the evening in Pennsylvania, and by starting the three-week campaign in Pennsylvania, and by speaking of competing in the May primaries "after winning this state," Santorum was putting all his chips on Pennsylvania. If he loses there, the advantages he sees in May -- Santorum-friendly primaries in North Carolina, Indiana, Arkansas, Nebraska, and others -- might not matter at all. Santorum's words and deeds appear to have set Pennsylvania as the bar he must clear to continue past April 24.
Meanwhile, a double standard has developed in the race, to Romney's disadvantage. As Romney was winning Maryland and Washington, for a total of 56 delegates, all eyes in the press were on the one state where Santorum was competitive, Wisconsin, with 42 delegates. On April 24, when there are primaries in New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Delaware, and Pennsylvania, all eyes in the press will be on Pennsylvania. To the narrative at least, it won't matter much if Romney wins four of five, if Santorum manages to win Pennsylvania. If that happens, the story will be that Santorum presses on, despite Romney's daunting advantage.
On the other hand, Pennsylvania now offers Romney the chance to deliver a knockout blow and perhaps not have to go through what could be a tough May. Romney is already hitting Santorum in Pennsylvania, and if there is one thing the Romney campaign knows how to do, it is carpet-bomb an opponent with negative ads. At the moment, Santorum appears to have a five- or six-point lead, down from last month. Maybe Santorum will slip more on his own. But Romney needs to nuke Santorum, he will.
Santorum knows it is coming and even now is making earnest entreaties to voters not to pay attention. "You'll be seeing the negative ads and you'll be getting the robocalls and all of the other things thrown at us," he told the crowd in Mars Tuesday night. "But you know me. You know how hard I work, you know how strongly I believe…You know me."