FREDERICK, Md. — Tuesday's primary in Wisconsin could give Mitt Romney crucial and perhaps decisive momentum toward locking up the Republican presidential nomination, but contests the same day in Maryland and the District of Columbia are likely to give him more of the convention delegates he needs toward that goal.
The political world will focus mostly on Wisconsin, with 42 delegates, since Rick Santorum, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, is competing hard there, seeking a breakthrough in an industrial, Midwestern state after losing earlier primaries in similar states.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, leads Wisconsin polls by an average of 7.5 percentage points, according to RealClearPolitics.com.
But he's a stronger favorite to win in the nation's capital — where Santorum isn't on the ballot — and in Maryland, even though it shares a long border with Santorum's home state of Pennsylvania. Maryland will select 37 delegates Tuesday and Washington 16, for a total of 53. Both contests are winner-take-all. (Three more Washington delegates will be chosen later at-large and sent to the convention technically unbound to any candidate.)
Romney now has 568 convention delegates, according to the Associated Press; 1,144 are needed to win the nomination. Trailing are Santorum, with 273, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich, with 135, and Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, with 50.
Romney's Maryland forces think they could sweep the state. He has a strong organization loaded with big names, led by former Gov. Robert Ehrlich. Supporters are running ads on local television, and rivals are barely visible.
"I'd guess Romney would win without much effort. Maryland is a pretty moderate state," said Tim Magrath, the executive director of the J. Glenn Beall Jr. Institute for Public Affairs at Maryland's Frostburg State University.
Any Santorum or Gingrich threat is likely to come in western Maryland. The region is similar demographically to, and not far from, the Pittsburgh area, which Santorum represented in Congress.
"People are familiar with Santorum's name and his time in Congress, and this is coal mining country," Magrath said. Santorum stresses that he's the grandson of a coal miner.
But Santorum's campaign has been virtually invisible, and even many backers seem unenthusiastic.
"He's the best of what was left," said Deb Rey, the president of the Republican Women of St. Mary's (County). "I ruled out Romney because he's too big government, like Newt."
Gingrich, whose campaign is barely alive, made two stops Monday in the western Maryland city of Frederick. He spoke to about 200 people at a car dealership, saying, "We have no obligation to back off and concede anything."
People present said that while they liked Gingrich, they weren't sure he'd get their votes.
"I'd rather Newt would have made it," said Russ Salter, a Frederick retiree. But he'll probably vote for Romney, not Santorum, because "There's something about Santorum I don't like."
Nancy Allen, a Hagerstown real estate agent, also likes Gingrich, but she wouldn't say whom she's voting for. Of Romney, she said, "I'm not sure he's a true conservative," but she's also reluctant to back Santorum. "I just don't see him bringing it home," Allen said.
There was little backing for Paul, whose chief source of support appears to be college students. He drew a raucous crowd of about 2,000 last week at the University of Maryland.
Romney is taking no chances. He campaigned last month at an American Legion post in Arbutus, a blue-collar Baltimore suburb. Restore Our Future, a political action committee that supports Romney, has been blanketing the Baltimore and Washington airwaves with TV ads.
Turnout is expected to be strong in areas with a history of choosing center-right Republicans. In Baltimore County, which includes most of Baltimore's suburbs, a fierce congressional primary is expected to attract voters sympathetic to Romney.
"Gov. Romney has a background as an executive, and no other candidate has that," Baltimore County GOP Chairman Steve Kolbe said.
Romney also is expected to do well in Howard and Montgomery counties, affluent Baltimore and Washington suburbs that have voted for centrist Republicans through the years.
His supporters are brimming with confidence.
"Romney has pretty significant support," said Louis Pope, a former state GOP chairman who's a co-chairman of Romney's Maryland campaign. "We plan to win all the congressional districts."
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