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."
Mr. Gingrich shrugged off the result, arguing that the party shouldn't pin their hopes on a candidate who depends on outspending his foes to win.
"Instead, we need a nominee who offers powerful solutions that hold the president accountable for his failures," he told Fox News, claiming that his proposal to drive gas prices down to $2.50 a gallon has put the White House on their heels.
"This is the type of leadership I can offer as the nominee, and this campaign will spend between now and when the delegates vote in Tampa relentlessly taking the fight to President Obama to make this case,” the former House speaker said.
Mr. Gingrich was campaigning in Louisiana and Mr. Paul, who made one stop here last week, also plans to head to that state.
Mr. Romney led consistently in the polls in the days before the Illinois vote, but Mr. Santorum held out hope that he could pull an upset and reinforce doubts about Mr. Romney's strength in a head-to-head matchup with Mr. Obama.
A Chicago Tribune poll this month showed Mr. Santorum within 4 points of Mr. Romney. But since then, despite his headline-grabbing victories in the Alabama and Mississippi primaries last week, the former senator from Pennsylvania has seen his stock drop while Mr. Romney's lead has risen.
The Santorum campaign didn't help itself with its failure to fill out full delegate slates in all of the state's 18 congressional districts. As a result, Mr. Santorum was eligible to collect at most 44 delegates, while the rest of the field is eligible for all 54.
Political pundits said low voter turnout could have been problematic for Mr. Romney and beneficial for Mr. Santorum, who has had a much easier time connecting with self-identified "very conservative" voters, evangelical or born-again Christians and those who identify with the tea party movement.
Mr. Romney's success, meanwhile, has largely been driven by voters who are attracted to his business background and the sense that he presents Republicans with the best chance of knocking off Mr. Obama in a general election.
Exit polls showed that Mr. Santorum outperformed Mr. Romney again among self-identified evangelical and born-again Christians, but those voters constituted a much smaller slice of the electorate.
Mr. Romney, meanwhile, won among those who "strongly support" the tea party movement — something he didn't do in either of the Deep South primaries last week.
As usual, Mr. Romney had the upper hand on the airwaves.
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that his campaign and Restore Our Future, the super PAC that supports him, outspent the Santorum campaign, and the super PAC aligned with him, $3.5 million to $500,000.
The advantage was clear, as Mr. Romney flooded the state with television commercials. In one, Mr. Santorum was described as an "economic lightweight" — a catchphrase that has become a go-to attack for the Republican front-runner.
"Who can turn around the economy and defeat Barack Obama? Not Rick Santorum," the ad's narrator says.
On Thursday, Mr. Santorum plans to visit Louisiana, where 46 delegates will be chosen.
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