Republican Mitt Romney easily won the Illinois primary on Tuesday over top rival Rick Santorum, the major television networks projected, moving him one step closer to clinching the party's presidential nomination.
A solid win in Illinois would give Romney a fresh burst of momentum in the volatile campaign for the White House and could persuade Republicans to rally around the former Massachusetts governor and end an increasingly bitter nominating battle.
Early results and exit polls gave Romney a double-digit lead over Santorum. Texas Congressman Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich trailed badly. Fox, NBC, and CNN projected that Romney would win.
Romney has more than twice as many delegates to the nominating convention as Santorum, and Romney's campaign has argued that his rivals cannot catch him in the contest to pick a challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama in the Nov. 6 election.
Santorum hopes to keep Romney from capturing a majority of delegates by the time the nominating contests end in June, leaving the choice up for grabs among the party's mostly conservative delegates heading into the August nominating convention in Tampa, Florida.
"Either Romney's going to win this outright or it's going to be chaos," Gingrich said on Fox News Radio on Tuesday. "I think that Romney will be a very weak candidate in the general election and I think that as people realize that it gets harder for him to be the nominee."
Romney has 521 delegates to Santorum's 239 in the race for the 1,144 needed to win the nomination, according to a count by CNN. There are 54 delegates to be allocated in Illinois from Tuesday's voting, but Santorum will not be eligible to win many of them because he failed to meet deadlines to file a slate of delegates in some districts.
Romney and Santorum had launched a new round of attacks on each other ahead of the vote, with Romney calling his rival an "economic lightweight" and Santorum accusing Romney, the former head of a private equity firm, of being "a Wall Street financier" who would have a hard time winning in November.
Santorum, a staunch social conservative, campaigned heavily in rural southern Illinois and courted conservatives who distrust Romney for the moderate stances he took as governor of liberal Massachusetts.
Romney, who also campaigned hard in southern Illinois in an effort to limit Santorum's advantage there, has been unable to translate his substantial financial and organizational advantages into broad support.
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