Illinois win moves Romney closer to inevitability

Santorum’s window closing

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SCHAUMBURG, Ill. — Mitt Romney notched another victory in the Republican primaries Tuesday, defeating Rick Santorum in Illinois and adding to the growing sense of inevitability that he will be the GOP nominee to face President Obama in the fall.

In winning Illinois, he undercuts Mr. Santorum’s contention that the longtime GOP front-runner can’t seal the deal with conservatives in the country’s heartland or in the Deep South. Mr. Romney gets a chance to refute the latter charge Saturday in the Louisiana primary.

The suspense ended early for the Romney supporters gathered here for an election night celebration at a convention center in the Chicago suburbs. Less than an hour after the polls closed and with less than 10 percent of the precincts counted, Fox News and then the Associated Press called the race.

With 68 percent of the votes counted, the AP had Mr. Romney leading Mr. Santorum, 47 percent to 35 percent. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trailed with 9 percent and 8 percent, respectively.

More importantly, the latest Associated Press projections show Mr. Romney’s lead over Mr. Santorum has grown to 300 in the race toward the 1,144 delegates needed to wrap up the nomination.

After walking away from Illinois with 43 additional delegates, Mr. Romney’s total catch stands at 563. Mr. Santorum grabbed 10 more delegates, upping his overall haul to 263, while Mr. Gingrich now has 153 delegates and Mr. Paul has 50.

Mr. Romney began his victory night speech by congratulating his GOP rivals on a “hard-fought contest” before turning his attention to President Obama.

“Tonight we thank the people of Illinois for their vote and for this extraordinary victory,” Mr. Romney said, before accusing the Obama administration of leading an assault on the nation’s freedom, weakening the economic recovery and “leading from behind” around the world.

He also said that the 25 years he spent in business makes him better equipped to embrace the policies needed to strengthen the economy — something he said that Mr. Obama never learned as a community organizer or teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago.

Tuesday’s results are sure to fuel the sense among those in the anti-Romney wing of the Republican Party that the only way remaining to deny the former Massachusetts governor the GOP nomination is to stop him from getting the magic number of delegates before the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in late August.

Falling short, Mr. Santorum and others have said, would mean Mr. Romney is an unacceptably flawed candidate and would open the door for delegates at the convention to tap a conservative alternative to the former governor.

Mr. Romney rode some momentum into Illinois after easily winning all of Puerto Rico’s 20 delegates in the territory’s primary Sunday.

Mr. Santorum, who also campaigned extensively on the Caribbean island before turning his attention to Illinois, was in Pennsylvania as the results were announced Tuesday night.

Before a room of cheering supporters, he vowed to continue. “Big things are at stake in this election,” he said. “Saddle up.”

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