WASHINGTON (AP/The Blaze) — Mitt Romney won the Maryland Republican presidential primary broadly and deeply, besting chief rival Rick Santorum among conservatives as well as moderates and emerging as the runaway favorite of those who care most about beating President Barack Obama and fixing the economy. The trend was similar if less convincing in Wisconsin, Tuesday's other big win for Romney, where he made inroads with the right but faced a strong challenge for the votes of the young and evangelicals.
In both states, Romney found a greater degree of success among constituencies that had flocked in past months to the now-fading Santorum. Still, his campaign-long struggle to identify with lower income people and the less educated endures, a gap more meaningful in the general election ahead than in the Republican contests.
Romney's win in Maryland was anticipated: the dimensions of it, perhaps beyond expectations.
For only the fourth time in the long campaign season, Romney won the support of a majority who called themselves conservative, according to preliminary results of an exit poll in Maryland. The only other such races were in Virginia, where Santorum wasn't on the ballot; Nevada, with a large Mormon population; and Massachusetts, where he was governor.
Maryland was also one of Romney's best showings among evangelicals — they made up one-third of the Maryland primary electorate — who had been a strong bloc for Santorum. That group was still a tough sell for Romney in Wisconsin, though, where he and Santorum split the votes of white born-again Christians.
Along with Ron Paul, a distant rival in the primary contest, Romney and Santorum vied closely for the support of voters 18-29, while Santorum scored strongly with those of the lowest incomes. Romney showed his usual strength among seniors and rich Republicans. But he also was besting Santorum among conservatives and tea party supporters.
In another measure of progress among conservatives, Romney had the edge with Wisconsin voters who said the government should do more to promote traditional values — a message at the heart of Santorum's campaign.
Like him or not, Wisconsin voters were convinced Romney is on his way to the nomination. About 80 percent said he'll win that race.
Voters Tuesday were among the least conservative to cast ballots in a primary season that saw the Republican race pulled sharply to the right. Even so, nearly half in Wisconsin said Romney was not conservative enough for their taste; 4 in 10 said the same in Maryland. Santorum had no trouble convincing voters Tuesday of his ideological bona fides, and about 3 in 10 in each state described him as too conservative.
But it was also apparent that the contest was about much more than that.
In Maryland, those most concerned about the economy supported Romney over Santorum by more than 30 percentage points. The economy was the top issue for about half of Maryland voters and an even bigger concern in Wisconsin.
Few voters in either state said they see the economy on the upswing. Only about 1 in 5 in Maryland and 3 in 10 in Wisconsin said the economy is improving. The next most important issue in both states: the budget deficit, which shaped how more than one-quarter of the primary-goers voted.
Romney won in Maryland among those age 45 and over, but he did best among seniors, besting Santorum by about 40 points. Santorum held an edge among those under age 45. But in nearly every other breakdown of voters — men and women, college education and not, rich and poor — Romney outperformed the field.
In both states, about 4 in 10 voters said the ability to beat Obama was the trait they most wanted in a candidate.
And in Whitefish Bay, Wis., Lana Adikes, 65, made the cold calculation that Romney was that candidate. "I think he's the only one who can do it," she said.
In the Milwaukee suburb of Brookfield, restaurant owner Earl Richter, 58, also felt that pull, but didn't give in to it. "I think anybody that can beat Obama is great," he said. "I think Mitt Romney will do just fine. But my principles or my beliefs are just more in line with Rick Santorum," so the former Pennsylvania senator got his vote.
The Supreme Court's hearing last week on the 2010 health care law brought that issue to the forefront of the nomination campaign. Santorum criticized Romney's record on the issue and appeared outside the Supreme Court to make the case that he is the candidate best suited to handle health care.
Wisconsin voters on Tuesday were split between Romney and Santorum as most trusted to manage health care policy, with about a third choosing each. About 1 in 6 said they trust Ron Paul most on the matter, 1 in 10 preferred Newt Gingrich.
About a third of GOP voters in Maryland and nearly 4 in 10 in Wisconsin said they were born-again or evangelical Christians.
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker earned a 78 percent approval rating from GOP primary voters in the early exit polling. Walker will face a recall election in June.
Exit polls in Maryland and Wisconsin were conducted for The Associated Press and the television networks by Edison Research. This includes preliminary results among 1,238 Republican voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 25 randomly selected sites in Maryland, and among 1,947 Wisconsin GOP voters as they left 35 polling places across the state. Results from both states have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Romney won D.C., where voters were not surveyed.
Romney also won the Washington, DC primary by an overwhelming margin.
Despite his three defeats, Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum tried to place a silver lining on his campaign, as murmurs grow from conservatives who believe the former Pennsylvania senator's campaign has come to the end of the road. While speaking in his home state after rival Mitt Romney secured victories in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, Sen. Santorum acknowledged that the delegate race is only have way over, and the primary campaign has reached has reached halftime.
Santorum is predicting a win in Pennsylvania's April 24 primary, and along with Newt Gingrich vows to compete in the rest of the GOP contests on the calendar.
Blaze Editor Christopher Santarelli contributed to this report.