- Mitt Romney took a major step toward securing the Republican presidential nomination, routing chief rival Rick Santorum in the Illinois primary for his third big-state win in a row and padding his already-formidable lead in the race for convention delegates.
Romney, a multimillionaire who has the backing of most of the Republican establishment but has struggled to win over the party’s more conservative wing, is the front-runner in the race for delegates to choose a candidate to challenge President Barack Obama in the November election.
Returns from 98 percent of Illinois’ precincts showed Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, gaining 47 percent of the vote compared to 35 percent for Santorum, 9 percent for Texas Rep. Ron Paul and 8 percent for a fading former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
That was a far more substantial showing for Romney than the grudging victories he eked out in the previous few weeks in the Midwestern industrial states of Michigan and Ohio, primaries that did as much to raise questions about his ability to attract Republican support as to quell those questions.
Santorum, a Catholic who is favored by religious conservatives, has almost no hope of overtaking Romney in the tally of delegates who will choose the nominee.
Romney’s victory was worth at least 41 delegates in Illinois, while Santorum won 10. The two rivals were battling for the final three delegates but the results were too close to call on election night.
Romney has 563 delegates in the overall count maintained by The Associated Press, out of 1,144 needed to win the nomination at the Republican National Convention in late August in Tampa, Florida. Santorum has 263 delegates, Gingrich 135 and Paul 50.
Neither Gingrich nor Paul campaigned extensively in Illinois.
A confident Romney shifted his focus toward the general election against Obama, ignoring his rivals in a victory speech to supporters gathered in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg after the results were announced.
“Tonight was a primary, but November is a general election. And we’re going to face a defining decision as a people,” Romney said. “We know what Barack Obama’s vision is. We’ve been living it these last three years. My vision is very, very different.”
Exit polling in Illinois showed Romney was preferred by voters seeking a candidate to oust Obama, and by those worried about the economy and federal deficit.
Santorum had robust backing from people seeking a real conservative and a contender with a strong moral character, and from the most religiously driven voters. But Illinois has only modest proportions of such voters.
Romney’s inability to shake off a seemingly weak rival like Santorum, an ex-U.S. senator from Pennsylvania with little national following until a few months ago, highlights the struggles of his candidacy, reflecting his inability to generate excitement among Republican voters who don’t trust the authenticity of his conservative views. It also means Romney has to spend time and money fighting primary battles instead of turning his full attention to defeating Obama.
Santorum, who hopes to rebound in next Saturday’s Louisiana primary, sounded like anything but a defeated contender as he spoke to supporters in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. He said he had outpolled Romney in downstate Illinois and the areas “that conservatives and Republicans populate.”
Santorum appeared to play on Republican voters’ suspicions of Romney, casting his rival as a political opportunist whose views shifted with political trends.
“We need someone who has a strong and clear record who can appeal to voters all across this country. Someone you can trust,” Santorum said. “Someone who will stand and fight, not just because it’s what the pollster tells them to say or what is on their teleprompter.”
In Illinois, Romney held an advantage in the competition for delegates thanks to his superior campaign organization. Santorum was ineligible for 10 of the 54 delegates at stake Tuesday because his campaign didn’t file the necessary paperwork to get his slates on the ballot.
Anticipating an Illinois primary defeat, Santorum’s campaign argued that the race for delegates is closer than it appears.
Santorum contends the Republican National Committee at the convention will force Florida and Arizona to allocate their delegates on a proportional basis instead of winner-take-all as the state Republican Party decided. Romney won both states.
Longtime Santorum adviser John Brabender suggested that Santorum would overtake Romney if Gingrich were not a factor in the campaign, but he stopped short of calling on him to exit.
“It’s time for Gingrich supporters to get behind us if they truly want to have a conservative candidate. It’s up to Newt Gingrich to decide what his future is,” he said.
Romney triumphed in Illinois after benefitting from a crushing, 7-1 advantage in the television advertising wars, and as his chief rival struggled to overcome self-imposed political wounds in the marathon race to pick an opponent to Obama.
Most recently, Santorum backpedaled after saying on Monday that the economy wasn’t the main issue of the campaign. “Occasionally you say some things where you wish you had a do-over,” he said later.
Over the weekend, Santorum was humbled in the Puerto Rico primary after saying that to qualify for statehood the island commonwealth should adopt English as an official language.
Illinois was the 28th state to hold a primary or caucus in the selection of delegates to the nominating convention, about halfway through the calendar of the Republican campaign.
Next up is a primary Saturday in Louisiana where Santorum projects confidence following twin triumphs a week ago in two other Deep South states, Alabama and Mississippi. There are 25 delegates at stake.
Behind Louisiana is a three-primary night in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Wisconsin on April 3, with 95 delegates combined at stake.
Santorum is not on the ballot in Washington, D.C., but is ahead in opinion polls in Maryland. Wisconsin -- which is next to Illinois -- shapes up as the most competitive primary of the night.