- Associated Press - Sunday, March 18, 2012

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Conventional wisdom is that Republican front-runner Mitt Romney will clinch the nomination before the national convention in Tampa, Fla., this summer, but no one has sent challenger Rick Santorum that memo.

Mr. Santorum is hard-charging ahead in Illinois and Louisiana, trying to tally as many delegates in his column — and out of Mr. Romney’s — as he can going into primaries coming up this week.

With half the states yet to weigh in on the Republican presidential nomination, the question of how likely some serious delegate trading would go on at the national convention in Tampa is being asked more frequently.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus insisted Sunday that the Republican Party will have a nominee sooner rather than later. While the committee is making no plans for the nomination vote to go beyond one ballot, rules already are in place should that scenario come to pass.

“We’re only at halftime,” Mr.  Preibus said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” ”I think that this process is going to play itself out. We will have a nominee, I think, fairly soon, one, two months away.”

Defying critics and looking back to 2008, Mr. Preibus said the rough-and-tumble primary fight is good for the Republican Party.

“Look what happened four years ago. We put America to sleep with our primary four years ago, and Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton nearly gouged each other’s eyes out. And what happened? He won.”

Mr. Romney’s eye is fixed on the Tampa and clinching the nomination beforehand.

“I can’t tell you exactly how the process is going to work,” Mr. Romney told “Fox News Sunday,” ”but I bet I’m going to become the nominee. I sure hope I’m going to become the nominee.”

Mr. Santorum stopped short Sunday of saying he was pushing for more than one ballot in Tampa, but he pointed to Mr. Romney’s lack of appeal among the Republican’s base of conservative voters despite his well-funded, well-organized campaign.

“Look, this is a primary process where somebody had a huge advantage, huge money advantage, huge advantage of establishment support, and he hasn’t been able to close the deal and even come close to closing the deal,” Mr. Santorum said on ABC’s “This Week.” ”That tells you that there’s a real flaw there.”

On Sunday, Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum were campaigning in next-up primary states of Illinois and Louisiana, while Puerto Ricans get their say in picking the GOP’s presidential nominee.

Puerto Rico’s residents cannot vote in general elections but are set to award 20 delegates in their Sunday Republican primary.

Meanwhile, Mr. Romney was hoping to cement his lead in Illinois ahead of Tuesday’s primary, with chief rival Mr. Santorum in Louisiana ahead of that state’s vote on March 24.

Both Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney weighed in on Afghanistan as the campaign briefly moved to the Sunday-morning talk shows.

Mr. Romney said President Obama has failed in Afghanistan, and he blamed the president for some of the chaos there. Mr. Romney told “Fox News Sunday” that the president should have been “more engaged” with military commanders and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

Mr. Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, has emerged as the only Republican candidate not to question the U.S. commitment in Afghanistan, even as polls show that most Americans want to end it.

On ABC’s “This Week” Mr. Santorum said the U.S. should commit to “winning” in the region or get out, echoing comments rival Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker, made last week.

Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum both campaigned in Puerto Rico ahead of the voting.

But Mr. Romney dramatically curtailed his trip to the U.S. territory on Saturday in favor of spending more time in Illinois, where polls have shown him slightly ahead of Mr. Santorum.

At issue in Puerto Rico’s primary is the island’s political status — statehood, independence or no change. Puerto Ricans will vote on that in November.

Mr. Romney has support from much of the establishment here, including Puerto Rican Gov. Luis Fortuno, who supports making the island the 51st state. Mr. Romney is confident about his prospects for winning many of the island’s delegates.

Mr. Santorum has said he would support statehood if the November vote were decisive. He also has spent days explaining his comment that English would have to become the island’s main language for Puerto Rico to realize statehood. Only a fraction of Puerto Rico’s residents speak English fluently.

Puerto Rico’s delegates will be split proportionally among the candidates, though if a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, he will sweep them all.

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