After losing two critical Southern contests to his main rival Rick Santorum on Tuesday, Mitt Romney is likely to notch up more victories and collect more delegates in the coming weeks. At the same time, however, the next high-profile races could once again underscore Romney's weaknesses as the Republican presidential frontrunner.
The next Republican nominating contests are the Missouri caucuses on Saturday and the Puerto Rico primary on Sunday. Then, Illinois holds its primaries on March 20, setting up a fight between Romney and Santorum in another large Midwestern state. In the past two weeks, Romney has eked out victories in Michigan and Ohio, two similar states, but now, the momentum is on Santorum's side.
CBS News Political Director John Dickerson notes that Illinois is a "financial advantage, as well has his organizational advantage." state for Romney. Most of the state's primary voters are likely to come from around the Chicago area, which gives the former Massachusetts governor an edge. The size of the state will also allow Romney to exploit his
And yet the only recent poll out of Illinois suggests a very tight race.
The Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll, conducted March 7-9, shows Romney in the lead with 35 percent support of likely Republican primary voters. Santorum wins 31 percent support -- close enough to give him a statistical tie with Romney. Newt Gingrich takes 12 percent while Ron Paul garners 7 percent support.
Another 16 percent in the poll were undecided, and 46 percent said they could change their minds before the primary. The poll was conducted before Santorum's victories in Kansas, Alabama and Mississippi, meaning his base of support in the counties outside the Chicago area could be more enthused to vote. The poll shows Santorum with a 35 percent to 29 percent advantage in those 96 counties.
A victory in a large, more moderate state like Illinois would be a huge symbolic victory for Santorum -- but as the Romney campaign would be quick to point out, it'd be little more than that. To start with, Santorum failed to appoint a full slate of delegates in the state, appointing just 44 of 54.
Even if he weren't facing that handicap, Illinois -- like most states that have yet to vote in the primary -- allocates its delegates proportionally. The Romney campaign continues to press the fact that the former governor has a substantial delegate lead that it would be practically impossible for Santorum to catch up to. According to CBS News' latest delegate count, Romney has an estimated 468 delegates, followed by Santorum with 217, Gingrich with 117 and Paul with 41.
"Tuesday's results actually increased Governor Romney's delegate lead, while his opponents only moved closer to their date of mathematical elimination," Rich Beeson, the Romney campaign's political director, wrote in a memo Wednesday.
Following the Illinois primary, the candidates could be in for another tight contest in Louisiana where the only recent poll shows Santorum with a slight lead but Romney and Gingrich close behind.
Once the primary heads into April, conditions look more favorable for Romney. The primary in Wisconsin -- where politics have become increasingly polarized in the past two years -- could be challenging, but the primaries in the District of Columbia and Maryland could give Romney two more victories. Romney should also perform well later in the month when states like Connecticut, Delaware and New York vote. However, Santorum has a, which also votes in late April.