Speaking to supporters in Illinois Tuesday night after his decisive victory there, Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, declared, "It's time to say this word: enough. We've had enough."
Romney was talking about his desire to end the Obama administration. But one wonders if he also was making a subtle plea to his GOP rivals.
Romney's win in Illinois was big enough to give him a majority of the popular vote and a projected 38 of the 54 delegates at stake. But was it big enough to bring an end to a nominating fight that many observers have called protracted? His chief rival, Rick Santorum, had a quick answer.
"We must go out and fight this fight," Santorum told supporters at a concession speech he delivered not in Illinois but in his home state of Pennsylvania. "So I ask each and every one of you to join us, to saddle up, like Reagan did in the cowboy movies. … We're feeling very, very good about winning Louisiana on Saturday, I might add."
Santorum, who is slated to win about a dozen delegates in Illinois, got what he has been calling out for the last few weeks: a one-on-one shot at Romney. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich, the other remaining Republican candidates, were non-factors in Tuesday's contest. Neither spoke after the polls in Illinois closed.
With a two-man race, voters in Illinois, a moderate-to-left-leaning state, handed Romney a convincing win, the one he has been hoping for since his Florida primary victory nearly two months ago.
According to exit polls, the usual suspects went for Romney: independents, moderates, those who say the ability to beat President Obama is the most important candidate quality (nearly 75 percent of this group voted for him), and those who say the economy is the most important issue facing the nation.
There were more of those voters for Romney to draw from in Illinois, but it would be a mistake to assume they were the only reason that led to his wide victory margin.
Romney also gained ground in areas that have belonged to Santorum in recent primaries: married women, those who attend religious services weekly, self-identified Protestants and Catholics, the Tea Party crowd, and those who identified themselves as conservatives.
Santorum, according to exit polls, continued to win the support of evangelicals, the very conservative, those who live in rural areas, those who make less than $30,000 a year, and those who have never attended college.
The question heading into this Saturday's Louisiana primary, and continuing into contests in April, is whether these voting blocks will be enough for Santorum. Romney leads in most of the categories that contain a large swath of GOP voters. For example, nearly 60 percent of voters ranked the economy as the campaign's top issue, a category Romney won by a commanding 21 percentage points over Santorum Tuesday.
Beyond this divide among voters, what stood out about Tuesday night's events were the similarities in the two candidates' speeches.
Romney said America is "fueled by freedom" and the current administration is "engaged in an assault on our freedom." Santorum stood in front of a banner that read "Freedom" and said, "The foundational issue in this race, the one that is … the cause of the other maladies that we are feeling … that's the word freedom."
Both blamed the growth of government for the nation's problems. Romney said, "The government does not create prosperity; prosperity is the product of free markets and free people." Santorum said, "We need someone who's going to pull up government by the roots and throw it out and do something to liberate the private sector in America."
But there was a fundamental difference, as well (beyond the fact that Romney used a teleprompter and Santorum did not-a fact Santorum gleefully noted). Romney spent his victory speech taking on Obama (not even mentioning his GOP rivals by names), while Santorum still must take on Romney and convince voters he is the better alternative.
Romney, mocking Obama for his community organizer roots, said the president is "crushing the dream and the dreamers" under the weight of regulation and bureaucrats.
"You and I know what President Obama still has not learned," he said to his supporters, "even after three years and hundreds of billions of dollars in spending: The government does not create prosperity; prosperity is the product of free markets and free people."
Santorum accused Romney for once supporting a form of government-run healthcare and the theory of global warming. Santorum characterized Romney as someone who listens to pollsters and supports what "happens to be the popular theme of the moment." Santorum also discounted Romney's experience as a business executive.
"This is an election about not who's the best person to manage Washington or manage the economy," he said, adding that the American people "want someone who's not going to go to Washington, D.C., because they want to be the most powerful person in the world to manage Washington. They want someone who's going to take that power and give it back to the people of this country."
Going forward into April, May, and possibly even June, the Romney campaign likely will be content with its candidate publically taking on Obama and acting like he has already entered the general election, leaving it to his sizeable cash and campaign apparatus to undercut Santorum behind the scenes, as its chief rival continues to carry on an intraparty feud.
It all sets up what may be a must-win for Santorum on April 24 in his home state of Pennsylvania. It is a state in which he lost by 18 percentage points the last time he was on the ballot there, in a reelection bid for the U.S. Senate. Clearly, Santorum understood this Tuesday. That's why he ended the night at home instead of Illinois.
"I feel welcomed back home to Pennsylvania, so thank you very, very much," he said Tuesday night. "We're heading to Louisiana for the rest of the week, and then we're going to be back here in Pennsylvania, and we're going to pick up a whole boatload of delegates and close this gap and on to victory."