Rick Santorum invested a fair amount of precious, time and resources into campaigning for Sunday’s Puerto Rico Republican presidential primary. But it turned out to be a poor use of scarce resources for the GOP challenger at a time when he could least afford it. Mitt Romney cruised to a landslide victory in the Commonwealth. Romney won all 20 delegates up for grabs as residents of the island turned out in relatively strong numbers. Despite promoting himself as the senator from Puerto Rico, whatever hopes the Pennsylvanian might have had in Puerto Rico were probably sunk when he asserted that the island must adopt English as its official language if it wants statehood. Santorum got only 8 percent of the more than 100,000 votes cast, the sort of dismal result he might have gotten even without bothering to show up there last week as he did.
Romney can now brag that he has the ability to generate support for Hispanic voters even though none of this who turned out on Sunday will have the ability to vote for him in November. But no matter how you spin the result, the delegates he won gets him a bit closer to the nomination. Just as important, the win gives him an extra touch of momentum heading into the pivotal Illinois primary on Tuesday.
While nothing that happens on Tuesday will knock Santorum out of the race, Illinois looms large in his hopes to topple the frontrunner. It represents one of the last chances he has to beat Romney in a large state. If he falls short as he did in Michigan and Ohio, then it will be difficult, if not impossible for him to claim that he is anything but a factional spoiler with no chance of winning the nomination.
Were Santorum to win in Illinois, and right now all the polls taken so far show him trailing, then it will be a huge boost for his presidential hopes. More importantly, it would be the sort of blow to his credibility that would make the Mr. Inevitable reputation that his campaign is trying so hard to promote look silly. At the same time, consecutive victories by Santorum in Illinois and then in Louisiana next weekend would be the sort of momentum shift that would have Republicans wondering if Santorum could win the nomination outright.
But Romney appears on track right now to put an end to that happy scenario for Santorum. A big win in Illinois would be the sort of thing that might lead many Republicans to tell Santorum that it was time for him to bring the contest to an end. Though his backers may be looking forward to a brokered convention, as a man who hopes he has future in the GOP, Santorum must know that there will be negative long range consequences for him if his actions sabotage Republican hopes in 2012 by hanging on long after he lost any chance to win. A big Romney win on Tuesday could lead to exactly this sort of a discussion in the GOP.
That’s why Romney is working hard in Illinois even though he has a lead. In a race that has been filled with ups and downs and upsets of every variety, if Romney outperforms expectations there as he did in Illinois, it could be the beginning of the end for Santorum.