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Santorum 2012

Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks at a campaign rally at Herrin High School on Saturday, March 17, 2012 in Herrin. Because of a lack of delegates in Illinois, the most Santorum can win is 44 in Tuesday’s primary. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)

Seth Perlman

When Republican voters head to the polls Tuesday, they’ll be faced with choosing between Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul in what amounts to a beauty contest for the GOP presidential nomination.

Although the winner could walk away with much-needed momentum, the nuts-and-bolts battle is over delegates who can spell victory when the party gathers in August in Tampa to coronate their candidate.

The odd man out in the delegate ground war is Santorum, who entered the Land of Lincoln with a full tank of momentum after winning two key states in the south on March 13.

Unlike his counterparts, the former Pennsylvania senator doesn’t have a full slate of delegates on the ballot in Illinois, which could hurt him if the race remains unsettled into the summer months. Voters living in the newly configured 13th Congressional District, for example, won’t have an opportunity to vote for any Santorum delegates because no one filed to run for the post.

Illinois represents 69 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the GOP nomination. The state’s voters will directly elect 54 of those delegates on Tuesday and the most Santorum can win is 44.

Analysts say Santorum’s recent surge may help keep his candidacy afloat, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll walk away with a win in the delegate category.

“I think because Romney has the money and the organization, he’ll win the delegates,” said University of Illinois-Springfield political scientist Kent Redfield. “It would be really surprising if Romney didn’t have a comfortable win in Illinois.”

Months ago, it appeared as though Romney would be the easy winner in Illinois, garnering backing from top state Republicans, including U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford. In recent weeks, he’s received more support from prominent party officials including Tom Cross, minority leader in the Illinois House.

But Santorum’s continued success has chipped away at Romney’s frontrunner status. Despite being hobbled by delegate problems, Santorum has tried to make a low-budget play for the Prairie State, making numerous campaign stops in the days leading up to the balloting.

On Monday, for example, he plans to hold a rally in Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home of Dixon, as well as make stops in Rockford, Moline and East Peoria.

Santorum also enlisted help from an anti-abortion women’s group called the Susan B. Anthony list. The organization has followed the Santorum campaign across the South and Midwest and scheduled stops in seven Illinois cities, including Moline, Carbondale and Peoria.

His camp downplays the delegate problems.

“It’s actually going to be fine,” said Santorum’s Illinois director Jon Zahm. “Our plan is to win 10 of the 14 districts where we have delegates.”

Santorum also has a strategy for trying to tamp down Romney in the 13th Congressional District: He’s calling on Santorum supporters to cast their delegates for Ron Paul.

Romney, who is the only candidate running television ads in Illinois, also brought in reinforcements last week. On Friday, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie stumped for Romney at Elmhurst College in Chicago’s suburbs.

Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, made a stop in Chicago’s suburbs Thursday in his quest to stay in the race after not faring as well as expected in Mississippi and Alabama. Ron Paul made just one stop in Illinois when he visited the University of Illinois on Wednesday and was endorsed by U.S. Rep. Tim Johnson of Champaign.

“We’re told this is the only stop he’s making in Illinois,” Johnson spokesman Phil Bloomer said of Paul’s campaign efforts here. “Tim thinks the world of Ron Paul.”

The potentially tight race between Romney and Santorum marks the second time Illinois primary voters have played a larger-than-normal role in deciding who gets to run in November. In 2008, Democrats moved the primary date earlier in order to give President Barack Obama a push in his quest for the White House.

Now, with the primary date moved back to its traditional date in March, Republican voters find themselves in that role.

Whether that translates into higher voter turnout remains unclear. The number of registered voters in Illinois is down from 7.6 million in 2010 to 7.2 million. The turnout rate for primary elections is typically about 29 percent.

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