03/20/2012 09:10 pm ET Updated Mar 21, 2012

Mitt Romney's Illinois Primary Win Another Missed Opportunity For Rick Santorum

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. -- The "act of God" that Mitt Romney's campaign says Rick Santorum needs to win the Republican nomination is moving from healing status to that of resurrecting the dead.

Romney won the Illinois Republican primary Tuesday night, claiming a majority of the state's 69 delegates and moving closer to his party's nomination.

Romney's victory was another setback -- and huge missed opportunity -- for Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania who has repeatedly been unable to defeat Romney in large industrial Northern states with big urban centers.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, turned Santorum back in Michigan and Ohio over the past month. And in Illinois, Romney did it again. Romney led Santorum 46.7 percent to 35 percent, with 99 percent of the vote counted. The Associated Press count of delegates won gave Romney 43 and Santorum 10, with one delegate up in the air -- a stinging loss for Santorum.

Romney's win kept Santorum away from a major win after the former senator's surprise victories in Mississippi and Alabama a week ago.

As he has throughout the entire primary fight, Romney enjoyed a massive advertising advantage. Santorum and a super PAC supporting him, The Red White And Blue Fund, were outspent by Romney and the pro-Romney super PAC, Restore Our Future, by about $3.7 million to roughly $530,000, according to Politico.

Santorum's inability to win a major showdown in Northern states has previously been a momentum-stopper. His Illinois loss may be more than that.

He continues to lag behind Romney in delegates. But more importantly, the potential for him to catch fire as the unquestioned conservative alternative to Romney -- with the full support of the GOP's grassroots -- seems to be slipping out of reach.

Although Illinois would have been a tough state for Santorum no matter what, his failure to capitalize on the wins in Mississippi and Alabama was due to his own lack of message discipline. It has now become an established pattern for Santorum to shoot himself in the foot in the days leading up to a big primary contest.

In the days following his Southern wins, Santorum made waves with comments about the Obama administration's lack of enforcement of laws concerning pornography. And then Monday, he made two gaffes regarding the economy.

"The issue in this race is not the economy," Santorum said in Rockford Monday morning.

Then in Moline, Santorum said, "I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. There's something more foundational that's going on here."

Romney put an exclamation mark on his night by giving one of the stronger speeches of his candidacy, expanding on the theme of "economic freedom" that he spoke about Monday.

"So tonight is a primary, but November is a general election, and we're going to face a defining decision as a people. Our choice will not be about party or even personality. This election will be about principle. Our economic freedom will be on the ballot," Romney said.

Romney accused President Barack Obama of waging "an all-out assault on our freedom" through government intrusion into the public sector, environmental restrictions, and other government regulations.

But there were still red flags for the former Massachusetts governor. Exit polls showed that about 53 percent of those who voted for Romney said they had "reservations" about their candidate.

As for Santorum, his campaign aides argued Tuesday that they are not trailing Romney in the race for 1,144 delegates by as much as most estimates by media outlets -- and the Romney campaign -– say. The 1,144 mark is the number of delegates needed to clinch the nomination.

The Associated Press estimate of delegates, for example, gives Romney 522 to Santorum's 253 at this point. But the Santorum campaign has taken issue with those numbers, arguing that their count has Romney at 435 and Santorum at 311.

"Romney's treating it as a foregone conclusion, and he's putting delegates in his count that aren't theirs, he's taking delegates away from other people that he can't take away," said Santorum's spokesman, Hogan Gidley, on an hour-long conference call with reporters.

The Santorum argument is that many of the caucus states that have voted so far, including Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, Missouri and Washington, have rules that mean their delegates are awarded based on which campaign can get the most supporters to the state convention. Convention attendees vote on delegates to the national convention.

Santorum's delegate counter, John Yob, said that the campaign and that of Ron Paul are showing strength in the process of pushing their people through the state convention process. But when asked to provide a list, for example, of which state convention delegates in Iowa are supporting them, Yob declined.

"It certainly wouldn't be wise for us to release our identification data to the Romney campaign for them to be able to have our information," Yob said. "We believe we will get a vast majority of the delegates in Iowa. That's as far as we're going right now."

Without evidence, the Santorum claim is just words. But it allows the campaign to manage perceptions of how far behind Romney Santorum is, to keep him in the race.

"I understand what Santorum is doing what he's doing, because I do think his biggest risk is getting to the point where it's mathematically impossible for him to win the nomination," said a nationally known Republican operative, who did not want to be quoted by name talking about the presidential race with the primary still undecided. "At that point I think a lot of Republicans will say, 'Well he can't win, and as much as I like him and he resonates with me, let's get this over with.'"

In Illinois, Santorum was only eligible to win 44 of the 54 delegates up for grabs on Tuesday, because his campaign had failed to field a full slate of delegates in every congressional district. The state's remaining 15 delegates to the national convention in Tampa in August will be voted on by delegates to Illinois' state convention in June.

Santorum is certainly the choice of the evangelical vote and many "values voters." But the continued presence in the race of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Santorum's failure to score a major upset over Romney has kept him from building a significant national wave of momentum.

This primary has been unpredictable, and it's possible that wave could still materialize. But Santorum is running out of opportunities and time to catch it. He spent election night in his home state of Pennsylvania, looking ahead to the primary there that is on April 24, still over a month away.

He is forecast to win Pennsylvania, but that looks less likely to be a cakewalk than it did a week or two ago. More immediately, Santorum expects to win Louisiana's primary this coming Saturday.

But he may lose all three contests on April 3 -- Maryland, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia -- as well as the four other contests on April 24. Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware all hold primaries that day.

The Romney campaign's argument -- that Santorum is too far behind in delegates to catch up -- will gain weight if Santorum suffers a series of losses in early April and then at the end of the month.

However, May is much more friendly for Santorum. If he could survive through April, he could be rejuvenated with a series of wins, starting on May 8 in Indiana, North Carolina and West Virginia. Nebraska and Oregon hold primaries on May 15, and then there are two more Southern states on May 15: Arkansas and Kentucky.

Texas, a motherlode of delegates with 155, holds its primary on May 29.

If Santorum's aim is simply to keep Romney from reaching the magic number of 1,144 delegates, May could be the month that keeps him in the game.

But playing the role of spoiler is not a very inspirational one. Whatever visions Santorum may have of making it to the GOP convention in Tampa may well be deflated by the backlash that hits him if it becomes clear that his only plan is to stop Romney.

Santorum, asked by The Huffington Post Monday about the prospect of getting out of the race, laughed off the suggestion.

"Did I give anybody the impression that I was getting out of this race anytime soon?" he said in a short press conference with a handful of reporters. "I'm not too sure you guys are quite getting the flow of this yet. Hang in there with us. We'll be around for a while."

UPDATE: 12:39 a.m. March 21 -- This article has been updated to include the latest popular vote and delegate results.