WASHINGTON: Mitt Romney won an overwhelming victory over chief rival Rick Santorum in Puerto Rico's Republican presidential primary, but Romney was campaigning in the critical heartland state of Illinois ahead of that state's primary on Tuesday — another chance to prove he's the best choice to challenge President Barack Obama in the November election.
The former Massachusetts governor has been unable to win the hearts of the party's conservative base who distrust Romney for his moderate past positions on important social issues like abortion and gay rights.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, said he was in the contest for the long haul because Romney is a weak front-runner, even though he comfortably leads in the fight for delegates to the nominating convention. Santorum campaigned Sunday in the southern state of Louisiana, which holds its primary on Saturday.
"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," Santorum said of Romney. "That tells you that there's a real flaw there."
To gain the nomination, Romney must accumulate 1,144 delegates to the Republican National Convention — allocated through state-by-state primary elections and caucuses. Romney is on pace to capture the nomination in June unless Santorum or Gingrich is able to win decisively in the coming contests.
Before Puerto Rico's vote was in, Romney had 501 delegates, more than all of his rivals combined. Santorum stands at 253, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has 136, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul is at 50, according to an Associated Press projection.
Late on Sunday night, with 61 percent of the Puerto Rican votes counted, Romney had 83 percent of them. He won all 20 delegates to the national convention at stake because he prevailed with more than 50 percent of the vote. That padded his comfortable lead over Santorum in the race to amass the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch.
Both Santorum and Romney campaigned last week in Puerto Rico, the U.S. commonwealth island in the Caribbean island, where residents are U.S. citizens but cannot vote in the November presidential election. Romney secured the endorsement of Puerto Rico Gov. Luis Fortuno and other leading politicians. Santorum hurt himself with statements that English would have to be the official language if the U.S. territory were to seek statehood.
Each day that passes without a certain Republican nominee and the extension of the bitter fight raging with conservative opponents Santorum and Gingrich emphasizes disunity in the party, creates perhaps insurmountable divisions and plays into the hands of Obama.
Romney expressed confidence that he would eventually prevail.
"I can't tell you exactly how the process is going to work," 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."
The importance Romney places on Illinois showed itself over the weekend when he cut short a visit to Puerto Rico and added campaign events in the Midwestern state. Romney's campaign was taking no chances in Illinois after losses to Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, last week in the Deep South primaries in Mississippi and Alabama. Romney is favored in Illinois after eking out victories over Santorum in Michigan and Ohio, two other industrial states in the middle of the country.
Romney likely will do best in the densely populated Chicago region in the northeastern corner of the state, but Illinois voters become increasingly conservative — and more likely to mark ballots for Santorum — across the central and southern regions. The outcome will depend upon how many Chicago-area voters abandon Romney for either Santorum or, less likely, Gingrich. The former speaker of the House of Representatives has focused his campaign in the Deep South of the United States, but even at that he finished second to Santorum in Mississippi and Alabama.
Santorum wants Gingrich to leave the race, allowing him to consolidate the conservative opposition against Romney.
Both Santorum and Gingrich have said they would stay in the race and perhaps force the nomination to a fight at the Republican convention in Tampa, Florida, if Romney doesn't amass enough delegates to arrive with a mandate. That would turn the convention into an intra-party brawl for the first time since 1976 when President Gerald Ford turned back a challenge by Ronald Reagan.
Santorum hopes a strong showing in the remaining state contests would enable him to claim a mandate and persuade delegates to ignore election results in their states and go with him as the more conservative option over Romney. But there's a hitch, and that is Gingrich's refusal to quit the race even though he has only won primaries in South Carolina and Georgia, which he represented in Congress for two decades.