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Rick Santorum's Last Chance

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BOSTON –- Rick Santorum has had two big shots at breaking the Republican presidential primary wide open, in Michigan and then Ohio, and has fallen short both times. The next 13 days will likely be his last chance.

If Santorum wins the Kansas caucuses Saturday, and then both Mississippi and Alabama next Tuesday, he will suddenly be riding a significant wave of momentum. That energy would almost certainly pick up with another win in the Missouri caucuses on March 17.

A string of Santorum wins over the next 10 days would be impossible for the press, and for Mitt Romney's campaign, to downplay. It would set up a showdown with Romney on March 20 in Illinois.

For Santorum, a win in Illinois would be the breakthrough he has yet to achieve, and would show that he can beat Romney in a state the favors the former Massachusetts governor. It is not quite the "act of God" that one Romney adviser said Santorum needs to have any chance at the nomination. But it would be good enough. For Romney, turning Santorum back in Illinois would represent an opportunity to finally put an end to Santorum's remarkable run.

To Romney campaign workers in Boston, talk in the media about momentum is misplaced, since they are focused on Romney's sizable lead in delegates and say that should dominate the headlines. And they succeeded in making sure the press paid attention to this Wednesday, hosting reporters at their headquarters here to go over their delegate lead in detail.

Romney has 419 delegates to Santorum's 178, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) has 107 and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) has 47, according to an Associated Press estimate of delegates bound to vote for candidates at the Republican convention as well as those who are unbound but have been promised.

"As Governor Romney's opponents attempt to ignore the basic principles of math, the only person’s odds of winning they are increasing are President Obama's," wrote Rich Beeson, Romney's political director, in a memo to the press on the delegate numbers.

Romney campaign workers put on a bold face Wednesday, stressing the "impossibility" of either Santorum or Gingrich winning the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination. But there were abundant signs that they are looking to Illinois as their firewall.

A senior Romney campaign official involved with the delegate operation spent several minutes stressing Santorum's weaknesses in the state, as well as explaining how the Illinois balloting will affect the delegate count.

Santorum, the Romney adviser said, has "an Ohio problem in Illinois" because he failed to get his name on the ballot in four of Illinois' 18 congressional districts. In Ohio, Santorum was ineligible for up to 18 of the Buckeye State's 66 delegates because he did not meet ballot requirements there. In Illinois, Santorum will be ineligible for 10 of states' 69 delegates, the Romney campaign said.

The Romney adviser, during a briefing with about 40 reporters conducted on the condition that campaign officials not be identified by name, went on to detail the campaign's delegate strategy in Illinois. It is built around the unique way in which the Illinois Republican Party elects 54 of its 69 delegates directly by placing their names on the ballot.

"Technically the popular vote doesn't actually count … It has no binding effect at all" on delegates, the Romney official said. "When you open the ballot you'll see actual delegate names in each congressional district across the state, and you'll see the name of the candidate that they're pledged to beneath their name. And then you choose those individual people."

The point, the Romney adviser said, was that the campaign has recruited delegate candidates who are well-known local and state political figures whose name recognition will be a major advantage with voters who may not be sure what they're voting for.

"We've got the state treasurer of Illinois ... We've got local elected officials, prominent party people as our delegate candidates," the official said. "I don't know that Rick Santorum's delegates are going to be as locally prominent as ours. That will give us a leg up for sure."

There is one glaring problem with Romney's focus on delegates. In 2008, the Obama campaign used the delegate argument to fend off a formidable rival, but Obama's campaign was boosted in great measure by a candidate with immense voter appeal and inspirational qualities.

The Romney campaign, by contrast, is relying on the delegate strategy almost as its sole defense to stave off Santorum.

That is a big reason why the idea of a Santorum surge is still given credence. The Weekly Standard founder Bill Kristol wrote a post Wednesday titled, "It Ain't Over."

As for a potential string of Santorum wins over the next week and a half, the Romney delegate official stressed that Romney would still win delegates in those states, because they are not winner-take-all. But the line came out sounding like a less-than-inspiring rallying cry.

"Sure, there are other candidates who are going to win some more races but we're going to consistently be coming in second place and getting delegates in a lot of these states," the adviser said.

The Santorum campaign declined to respond to the Romney campaign's comments.

For Santorum to get the showdown with Romney that he wants, Gingrich must drop out. And the irascible former speaker of the House showed no indication he would do so on Wednesday. He rejected calls from Santorum's camp for him to quit.

"If I thought he was a slam-dunk to beat Romney and to beat Obama, I would really consider getting out. I don’t," Gingrich told radio show host Bill Bennett.

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