WASHINGTON -- The Republican establishment started to coalesce around Mitt Romney in earnest 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 found himself having to defend his conservative credentials anew after one of his own top advisers, Eric Fehrnstrom, remarked that "everything changes" for the fall campaign. "It's almost like an Etch A Sketch," he said. "You can kind of shake it up and we start all over again."
The remark 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.
"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."
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, but 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."
Romney 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.