There may have been no primaries this week in the lengthy knock-down, drag-out fight for the Republican presidential nomination, but that didn't stop Mitt Romney from picking up key support from the GOP establishment and its new Tea Party wing.
The nation's 41st president, George H.W. Bush, representing the party establishment, formally backed Romney on Thursday.
"I do think it's time for the party to get behind Gov. Romney," said Bush from his office in Houston, with his wife, Barbara, by his side. With inspiration from Kenny Rogers' song "The Gambler," the 87-year-old former president then offered some advice to Romney's rivals: "It's time when to hold 'em and time when to fold 'em."
Romney, who last week picked up the endorsement of one of Bush's sons, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, told reporters that he did not meet with former President George W. Bush while visiting Texas but added that he speaks to 43rd president from "time to time."
The endorsement of the elder Bush came one day after Sen. Marco Rubio, a Tea Party favorite, also publicly supported the former Massachusetts governor.
The freshman senator from Florida, appearing Wednesday night on the Fox News Channel's Hannity program, said Romney offers a stark contrast to President Barack Obama: "In Mitt Romney, we have a candidate, an alternative, that in addition to being successful as a governor, running an important state in this country, has also been successful in the private sector and offers a very clear alternative to the direction this president is going to take our country."
The endorsements from the Republican Party's past and present further cement Romney's frontrunner status heading into April's round of primary voting. The support also signals that a growing number of GOP lawmakers are ready to look past the primary battle and start focusing on November's general election.
Sen. Jim DeMint, the conservative from South Carolina with strong Tea Party credibility, met with Romney last week and emerged saying, "I'm not only comfortable with Romney, I'm excited about the possibility of him possibly being our nominee."
On Thursday, appearing before the Washington Examiner's editorial board, DeMint clarified those comments, saying that Romney in the last four years has developed into more of a conservative thinker.
"He understands our problem with the debt, the potential problem with our monetary system, … so from a pragmatic standpoint he knows that we have to eliminate some agencies and make some pretty serious changes," said DeMint, who has not formally endorsed Romney.
The root of both DeMint's comments and Rubio's endorsement likely can be traced to a mutual desire to end the primary campaign's intraparty squabbling before it leads to a contentious and controversial convention in August.
Rubio told reporters on Thursday that a convention floor flight would "be very exciting for political junkies to watch. I think it will be very exciting for the Obama campaign to witness. And I think it will be very catastrophic for Republicans."
He added, "In the modern era, in the 21st century, you cannot have an open fistfight like that at the convention, and nine weeks later defeat the best-funded presidential candidate in American history."
DeMint argued that the prolonged primary race would be more suitable if the candidates stuck to their ideas. "If they were selling their vision for America, it's fine to keep it going," he told the Washington Examiner, "but now it's kind of deteriorated into some name calling, and we need to get on to focusing on Obama."
Recent polls suggest the fears of both Rubio and DeMint may be well-founded. In a new CNN poll out this week, the president enjoys a double-digit lead over Romney and his top challenger, Rick Santorum. Meanwhile, other surveys show dropping favorability ratings for the Republican presidential hopefuls-a sign that voters may be tiring of the negative campaigning.
Santorum has taken heat for suggesting last week that President Obama would be preferable to Romney. In speaking to a Texas audience about Romney on May 22, Santorum said, "We might as well stay with what we have."
The former senator from Pennsylvania, who also called Romney the "worst Republican in the country to put up against Barack Obama," has since clarified that he was mainly talking about Romney's record on healthcare. Santorum has also stressed that he will support whoever is the eventual nominee.
But Santorum has been markedly less combative toward his party rivals in appearances this week as he campaigns ahead of next Tuesday's Wisconsin primary. Instead, he has tried to appeal to the Wisconsin workingman by going bowling at least three times and playing shuffleboard at a tavern.
"It's time for Wisconsin to do what I did the other day in Sheboygan," Santorum said this week in a speech in Sparta, Wis. "Not just bowl one strike, not just bowl two strikes, but to bowl three strikes in a row and knock Obama out of the game by electing Rick Santorum."
Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich, who met privately with Romney to discuss the race before the Louisiana primary last Saturday in New Orleans, continues to fall further behind, announcing this week that he would lay off a third of his staff and reduce his campaign schedule.
Sheldon Adelson, the casino powerbroker who has poured more than $15 million into a pro-Gingrich super PAC, even acknowledged Wednesday that Gingrich is "at the end of his line."
But as top conservative lawmakers spent the week opposing a contested convention, the biggest signal that the GOP nominating fight might be entering its final stage may have been Gingrich's and Santorum's responses when asked if they would accept the vice presidential slot.
"I wouldn't say, no," Gingrich said.
"Of course," Santorum said.
It's doubtful that either candidate would have given such an answer several weeks ago.
UPDATE: On Friday, Mitt Romney nabbed another high-profile endorsement: Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the influential House Budget Committee chairman, is backing Romney just ahead of Wisconsin's key primary on Tuesday.
Like other lawmakers, Ryan suggested that the primary is "entering a phase where it's counterproductive if it drags on much longer."