David Espo

WASHINGTON: After a three-month struggle, Mitt Romney edged into the mop-up phase of the race for the Republican presidential nomination on Wednesday, buoyed by Newt Gingrich’s decision to scale back his campaign to the vanishing point and Rick Santorum’s statement that he would take the No. 2 spot on the party ticket in the fall.

Romney campaigned by phone for support in next week’s Wisconsin primary while he shuttled from California to Texas on a fundraising trip, praising Gov. Scott Walker, for “trying to rein in the excesses that have permeated the public services union.” The governor faces a recall election in June after winning passage of state legislation vehemently opposed by organized labor.

Romney aides eagerly spread the word that former President George H.W. Bush would bestow a formal endorsement today, although they declined to say whether former President George W. Bush has been asked for a public show of support.

Seven months before Election Day, there was ample evidence of a preparation gap with the Democrats.

A spokesman at the Republican National Committee said the party had recently opened campaign offices in three states expected to be battlegrounds this fall and would soon do the same in seven more.

By contrast, Obama’s re-election campaign has 18 offices in Florida, nine in Michigan, a dozen in Ohio, 13 in Pennsylvania and seven in Nevada, according to officials. While Romney was campaigning in last winter’s Iowa caucuses, Democrats claimed to have made 350,000 calls to voters as part of an early organizational effort.

And while Romney is still raising money for the second half of the primary campaign, Obama recently reported $84 million in the bank for the general election.

Not that Romney was leaving the primary wars behind. He and Restore Our Future, a super PAC that supports him, were outspending Santorum and his allies on television by a ratio of more than 4-1, with an attack-heavy diet of television ads.

In addition, Romney’s campaign attacked Santorum in a recorded message called into thousands of homes.

“I was shocked to find out that Rick Santorum repeatedly supported big labor and joined with liberal Democrats in voting against right-to-work legislation during his time in Washington,” it says. “He even opposed the hiring of permanent replacements for striking workers. When it comes to big labor, Rick Santorum’s record of opposing right-to-work legislation and standing with union bosses speaks for itself.”

Santorum is campaigning across the state as an ally of Walker.

“I’m excited to stand here with Gov. Walker. Not only should he not be recalled, he should be re-elected,” Santorum said in LaCrosse, Wis.

There was no let-up in Santorum’s criticism of Romney, whom he said is “completely out of sync with America” and “uniquely disqualified” to lead the party against President Barack Obama.

But after absorbing defeats in a string of industrial states in the past month, he said of Wisconsin: “I think we’ll do well here. The question is how well.”

Washington, D.C., and Maryland also hold primaries next week, but Santorum is not on the ballot in the first contest.