Mitt Romney is close to finishing off his rivals for the Republican presidential nomination, talk of a brokered GOP convention in August, and the prospect of a new candidate suddenly entering the contest.

This would be a political hat trick once it happens, and the moment is likely to come quite soon, now that Romney has won an overwhelming victory in the Illinois primary. It would take a collapse of historic proportions for Romney to be denied the nomination.

Could that happen? Sure. But the chances are mighty slim. Rick Santorum would have to whip Romney in the big state primaries—California, New Jersey, New York—and also in states like Maryland, Delaware, Oregon, Connecticut, Wisconsin, and Utah.

As things now stand in the campaign, Santorum is more likely to lose all but one or two of these states than he is to capture a majority of them. Pressure for Santorum to drop out, quietly at first, is probably not far off.

Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul—forget them. Gingrich responded to Romney’s win in Illinois by whining about what he said was Romney’s 7-to-1 advantage in spending, as if it were improper. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said this was like accusing a basketball team of cheating because its players are too tall.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a different Romney—more conservative, more critical of President Obama, and more adept at explaining the contrast between himself and the president. Santorum insisted again Tuesday night that he would offer the strongest contrast, but Romney one-upped him in his post-victory speech.

Romney flubbed a couple lines and had a problem or two with the teleprompter, but his message was clear: The general election will be about the private economy versus big government. “This November, we face a defining decision,” he said. “Our choice will not be one of party or personality. This election will be about principle. Our economic freedom will be on the ballot.”

Santorum suggested Romney had stolen this theme from him, but if so, good for Romney. It’s the right theme. It’s far superior than elevating his background in business to his number one talking point, as Romney did earlier in the campaign.

By doing so, Romney has also embraced a new strategy. His plan was to run as a moderate but govern (I think) as a conservative. He’s abandoned the moderate mask and positioned himself firmly in the conservative camp.

A big step Romney took toward becoming an unabashed conservative was his endorsement Tuesday of the House Republican budget drafted by Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Budget Committee. It is a very conservative document, both reform-minded in regard to entitlements and committed to lower taxes and serious spending cuts, save defense.

And there may be more than meets the eye to Romney’s alliance with Ryan. It indicates that Romney is ready, assuming he wins the presidential nomination, to join with congressional Republicans to run on a common agenda. Ryan is the most influential thinker in the GOP on domestic and economic issues.

Ryan was persistent in refusing to consider running for president himself in 2012. But vice president? Romney is close to Senator Rob Portman of Ohio and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida has often been touted as a strong running mate. Both are from critical states. Portman is a Capitol Hill insider, Rubio an outsider skilled as a speaker. Ryan is both.

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