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News Analysis

Going gets tougher for Santorum as focus shifts north

After Louisiana on Saturday, Rick Santorum faces primaries in seven northern states and the District of Columbia. Rival Mitt Romney is favored in most of them. After Louisiana on Saturday, Rick Santorum faces primaries in seven northern states and the District of Columbia. Rival Mitt Romney is favored in most of them. (Charles Dharapak/Associated Press)
By Christopher Rowland
Globe Staff / March 21, 2012
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April, for Rick Santorum, may indeed be the cruelest month.

The upcoming Republican primary calendar holds a dwindling number of opportunities for the former senator, making it difficult for him to rebound from the defeat he suffered Tuesday in Illinois.

He has a good chance of beating Mitt Romney in the southern state of Louisiana on Saturday, the last primary election in March. But after that, April brings votes in seven northern states and the District of Columbia that award a combined 329 delegates. Romney is favored in most with the exception of Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania and perhaps Wisconsin. If Romney performs strongly and the delegate math increasingly favors the front-runner, Santorum will face increasing calls to stand down from his challenge by the end of the month.

“When you look ahead, it looks worse and worse for Santorum,’’ said Kenneth F. Warren, a political science professor and pollster at St. Louis University in Missouri.

The first crucial GOP battleground state will be Wisconsin, which is the biggest prize April 3, when Maryland and the District of Columbia also will vote. Santorum was shown to be ahead in a single Wisconsin poll in February and has scheduled a visit to the state on Saturday. His campaign said Tuesday it had begun airing advertising statewide.

Santorum needs to win outright there or at least push Romney to a narrow win as he did in Michigan and Ohio, to show he still has strength outside the South. That would be a crucial to his strategy of forcing a brokered convention by denying Romney the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination.

Romney has superior ground organization in Wisconsin, an advantage he has enjoyed in most primary and caucus states. He also hopes to get a bounce out of his win Tuesday in neighboring Illinois. Volatility plus a dearth of recent polls make it difficult to determine who has the advantage in the state.

“We have seen polling, not only in Wisconsin but throughout the country, go up and down every week,’’ said state Republican Party spokesman Ben Sparks.

Santorum failed to get on the ballot in the District of Columbia race, virtually guaranteeing Romney a victory in the capital. If Romney sweeps the three primaries on April 3, Santorum would find himself weakened, with little momentum remaining, during a three-week break in the schedule. Then, on April 24, his home state of Pennsylvania is bunched together with places Romney is expected to do well: New York, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island.

Even if Santorum holds his home state - a major general-election swing state, to be sure - Romney is likely to pick up more delegates on the day and win up to four states.

Santorum retreated to Pennsylvania on Tuesday night to watch the Illinois returns, emphasizing the importance of the state to his campaign. Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said the former senator is undaunted by the calendar in April, which he said should be viewed in the context of the entire process.

“Louisiana is the halfway mark. We have a whole second half to play,’’ he said. “We’re not going to live and die by the wins and losses in any one state.

“We can last, and we can fight these battles, and we can win these states,’’ he added.

But Santorum faces a problem even in his home state: delegate rules. He could win the popular vote but still not gather the most delegates, said Lara M. Brown, a political science professor at Villanova University. Under Pennsylvania’s rules, voters pick their primary preference at the top of the ballot, then elect convention delegates further down the ballot. Santorum has lacked sufficient organization to get delegates supporting him onto those ballots, Brown said.

The shortcoming gives state party leaders more power over how delegates are allocated. And that, in turn, would make it difficult for Santorum to mount a convention challenge based on delegate counts.

“To be honest, he is already in pretty bad shape’’ in Pennsylvania, Brown said. “He is up in the polls. From the surface level, his campaign looks strong. But at the organizational and rule level, he is to a certain extent in trouble.’’

Still, Romney’s continuing weakness among conservatives has prevented him from sewing up the nomination. Polls of voters in Illinois Tuesday demonstrated that Santorum won the support of “very conservative’’ voters, 48 percent to 33 percent, while Romney captured most of the votes from those who were somewhat conservative, moderate, or liberal, according to CNN. Santorum won among white, Christian evangelical voters, 47 percent to 35 percent.

Santorum is showing an inability to expand beyond his staunchly conservative base, however. And after battling successfully from an underdog position for weeks, he seemed uncharacteristically tone deaf recently, in ways that will make it harder for him to win over undecided Republicans. In Puerto Rico last week, he declared that English should be made the official language if the territory were to be admitted as a state. He implied that English was the official language in the United States, even though no such mandate exists.

In Illinois, the Romney campaign pounced on Santorum after the former senator declared that his candidacy is built on deep conservative principles, and that “I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be.’’

Santorum later said it was a poor choice of words. And exit polls strongly suggest that Illinois voters do care about unemployment. Nearly 60 percent of Illinois residents casting ballots said the economy is the most important issue facing the country. Among those voters, Romney demolished Santorum, 49 percent to 32 percent.

Christopher Rowland can be reached at crowland@globe.com.

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