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Jeb Bush endorsement boosts Mitt Romney after easy Illinois victory

By David Usborne in Mandeville, Louisiana

Fresh from celebrating a decisive win in the Illinois primary on Tuesday, Republican hopeful Mitt Romney received another important boost yesterday with an endorsement from Jeb Bush, the brother of George W Bush and a party figurehead who has often been tipped as a future candidate for the White House.

The backing of Mr Bush, the former Governor of Florida, will be particularly welcome to Mr Romney as he struggles still to overcome lingering doubts about his ability to rally a deeply fractured party.

"Primary elections have been held in 34 states and now is the time for Republicans to unite behind Governor Romney and take our message of fiscal conservatism and job creation to all voters this fall," Mr Bush, who now practices law, said in a statement. Mr Romney's win in Illinois means he is almost exactly half way toward reaching the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination at the party's national convention in Tampa and propel him forward to challenge President Barack Obama. But the mud is not off his shoes yet. Even if he continues to amass delegates at the same rate in all the 24 remaining contests, he will not reach that magic number before the last state votes in June.

Not that the path ahead is looking smooth for his closet rival, Rick Santorum, who now has only a tiny chance of catching up. His greatest hope is that Mr Romney will arrive in Tampa at the end of August without the required number of delegates for his coronation, which would force the party into a brokered, and likely bitter, convention.

Wasting no time, Mr Santorum was already barnstorming across deeply Republican Louisiana yesterday ahead of its primary on Saturday which, if the polls are to be trusted, he should be able to win. Newt Gingrich, who came an embarrassing fourth in Illinois, is also hoping that his southern roots will make him competitive in the state.

While he may lose this state this weekend, the rest of April looks mostly favourable to Mr Romney. "We are that much closer to securing the nomination, uniting our party, and taking on President Obama," Mr Romney wrote in an email to supporters after the Illinois results came in. With almost all the ballots counted, Mr Romney took Illinois with 47 per cent to 35 per cent for Mr Santorum and thus the lion's share of the state's delegates.

Going into the Louisiana contest, Mr Romney had 563 delegates, according to the Associated Press, compared to 253 for Mr Santorum, a former Senator for Pennsylvania.

Mr Santorum insisted that the Illinois loss had been widely foretold and would not slow his momentum. "It wasn't a tough night; we did very well. We picked up a lot of delegates tonight in a very tough state. Nobody had any expectations for us to win, and you know we did what we had to do," he told reporters. "Again, it's very clear it's a two-person race and now we need to get all the conservatives to line up behind us."

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