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Wisconsin primary is a big test for top Republican presidential hopefuls

WAUKESHA, Wis. -- Eager to shift his focus to President Barack Obama and the fall election, Mitt Romney is moving aggressively on multiple fronts to effectively bring the Republican nomination contest to a swift conclusion, with Tuesday's primary in Wisconsin seen as crucial in accelerating his momentum.

Coming on the same day as contests in Maryland and the District of Columbia, Wisconsin's primary has become the latest major battleground in the Republican race and one of the most crucial tests for Rick Santorum, who is trying to prove that he can defeat the front-runner in an important general-election state.

Both Romney and Santorum plan extensive campaign activity in Wisconsin from now to Tuesday in the first sanctioned winner-take-all contest of the year for the Republicans.

The two leading Republican candidates, along with Newt Gingrich, were all in Wisconsin on Saturday.

"Whoever wins Wisconsin is going to have some really serious bragging rights," said Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus, a former party chairman in this state. Asked whether the nomination battle has entered its final stage, he said, "I think the election on Tuesday is going to be pivotal in making this determination."

The former Massachusetts governor probably will not accumulate the 1,144 delegates needed for nomination until the end of the primary season and could lose to Santorum in contests in May. But by demonstrating his superiority in a series of tests, he expects to rally the party behind his candidacy in a way that would allow him to start building for the general election soon.

Victory Tuesday is only one part of the Romney campaign's overall plan to force his rivals to acknowledge that he is the inevitable nominee, even if the others continue their campaigns until the primaries and caucuses end in June or beyond, as they have vowed to do.

Other efforts include a plan to knock down Santorum in his home state, Pennsylvania, on April 24. A Romney victory there would deal a devastating blow and would probably lead to calls by others in the party for Santorum to either quit the race or modulate his anti-Romney rhetoric. Romney supporters are already working just below the radar to tarnish Santorum in Pennsylvania.

The Romney campaign is also continuing an endorsement strategy that has kicked into high gear since his victory in the Illinois primary.

Romney has picked up support from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., the latter two held in high esteem by Tea Party activists. Romney also appeared last week with former President George H.W. Bush and Bush's wife, Barbara.

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