WASHINGTON — 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 at least 50 percent who called themselves conservative, according to 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.
Both states featured stronger Romney showings among evangelicals than he's had in other recent states – he won about 4 in 10 born-again voters in each state, topping the 31 percent he's won across the 20 states where exit and entrance polls have been conducted this year.
Along with Ron Paul, a distant rival in the primary contest, Romney and Santorum vied closely for the support of voters 18-29. 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 was running about even with Santorum for the support of 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, with 80 percent saying 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, just over 4 in 10 voters in both states said Romney was not conservative enough for their taste. 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 half of Maryland voters and an even bigger concern in Wisconsin. Romney led Santorum by 14 percentage points among economy voters there.
Few voters in either state said they see the economy on the upswing. Only 21 percent in Maryland and 31 percent in Wisconsin said the economy is improving. About half in each state said it was worsening. The next most important issue in both states: the budget deficit, which shaped how about 3 in 10 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 36 percent favoring Romney, 31 percent Santorum. About 1 in 6 said they trust Ron Paul most on the matter, 1 in 10 preferred Newt Gingrich.
In Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker earned a 79 percent approval rating from GOP primary voters. 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 results among 1,243 Republican voters interviewed Tuesday as they left their polling places at 25 randomly selected sites in Maryland, and among 2,095 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.
Associated Press writers Dinesh Ramde in Whitefish Bay, Wis., Carrie Antlfinger in Brookfield, Wis., AP global polling director Trevor Tompson and AP News Survey Specialist Dennis Junius contributed to this report.