Election 2012: Primary day arrives in D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin

GOP hopefuls, including Romney, are vying for nearly 100 delegates in the D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin primaries. (Photo: AP)

Republican front-runner Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama are trading jabs even before Republicans vote in their latest presidential primaries, a sign that both sides believe the race to decide who will oppose the Democrat this fall is coming to a close.

With GOP primaries Tuesday in Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, Romney is set to hold one campaign event before an election night party in Milwaukee. He spent the weekend campaigning across Wisconsin, working to win yet another big industrial state that rival Rick Santorum was counting on to keep his flagging candidacy alive.

"Take the next step here in Wisconsin," Romney urged supporters at his last campaign stop Monday. "I need you to go out and vote. Get your friends."

More than 80 percent of Republicans who cast ballots in Wisconsin's presidential primary say they expect Mitt Romney to be the party's nominee. Preliminary results of an exit poll in Wisconsin on Tuesday show Republicans divided on which candidate they trust most to handle health care.

About 4 in 10 GOP voters in the Wisconsin and Maryland primaries say the most important trait a candidate can have is the ability to defeat President Barack Obama in November.

Almost as many combined say that it's vital for a candidate to be a true conservative or have strong moral character.

Voters in the two states are among the least conservative to cast ballots this primary season. Just three states have had fewer voters calling themselves "very conservative."

The New York Times cites a Public Policy Polling survey that says that Romney, who has shifted his rhetoric from primary mode to campaign stumping in recent days, is primed to take both Wisconsin and Maryland on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, election officials are are predicting low voter turnout throughout the Free State, where Tuesday's GOP primary is closed to Republican voters only.

"Just in the last few weeks, voters realized there was an election coming up," Maryland voter Elli Shaw said.

However, those who are turning out to vote in Maryland have strong reasons for why they're doing so.

Obama is treating the former Massachusetts governor as though he's already won the GOP nomination.

The president's re-election campaign is running a new TV ad in five swing states attacking Romney by name for the first time - in this case as a backer of "Big Oil" amid high gasoline prices.

While charging that Obama's version of a perfect world is one with "a big-spending big government," Romney is acting as though his opponents for the nomination no longer matter.

Romney has 572 Republican National Convention delegates, exactly half of the 1,144 needed to win the nomination, and is on a pace to clinch by the end of the primary season in June.

Santorum has 272 delegates, Newt Gingrich 135 and Ron Paul 51.

There were 95 delegates at stake Tuesday, including 42 in Wisconsin, the only one of the three contests that Santorum seriously contested.

Romney is expected to do well in Maryland and in the District of Columbia, where Santorum's name doesn't appear on the ballot.

The former Pennsylvania senator has retreated to his home state to watch returns from Wisconsin, holding an evening event in Mars, a town outside Pittsburgh.

Romney has ignored Santorum the past few days and focused instead on Obama, telling supporters in Green Bay that the president "takes his political inspiration from the capitals of Europe."

Obama's ad claims that "Mitt Romney's stood with Big Oil - for their tax breaks, attacking higher mileage standards and renewables."

It's a response to an ad from Crossroads, a Republican super PAC that's expected to spend millions of dollars attacking the president this year.

Romney's campaign, though, is running far behind the president in fundraising, as he's been unable to raise general election money because of the drawn-out primary contest.

At the end of February, Obama reported $84.7 million in his campaign account compared with Romney's $7.3 million.

Obama has more than 530 paid staff compared with roughly 100 for Romney. But Romney has far outspent his rivals during his bid for the nomination.

Santorum, also campaigning in Wisconsin on Monday, said Romney has essentially bought his success by outspending the competition.

Romney and his allies have spent a combined $53 million on television advertising so far this election cycle compared with just $27 million from his three Republican competitors combined, according to data compiled by the media tracking firm SMG Delta.

Santorum's team, having narrowly lost a string of high-profile contests, spent just $9 million.

"With almost unlimited resources, Gov. Romney has not proven to be very effective," Santorum said as he predicted a possible upset in Wisconsin.

"The only way he's been successful in winning the primaries is by just bludgeoning his opponents by an overwhelming money advantage - something he's not going to have in the general election."