Santorum Sweeps, But Delegate Count Paints Bleaker Picture

Santorum won Alabama and Mississippi, but still faces an uphill battle to earn the GOP nomination.

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Rick Santorum is getting the headlines Wednesday for winning the Republican presidential primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, but the reality of the delegate count doesn't paint such a rosy picture for the former senator from Pennsylvania. Front-runner Mitt Romney actually maintains nearly the same delegate advantage he held before Santorum's two wins Tuesday.

An Associated Press survey gives Romney 495 delegates compared to Santorum's 252. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has 131 and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 48.

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That's because Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, collected about one-third of the vote in each of those Southern states--just short of the percentage that Santorum garnered. And Romney also won the lion's share of delegates in Hawaii and American Samoa, which also held their nominating contests Tuesday, even though those totals weren't included in most news stories Tuesdaybecause of the time difference between the Islands and the mainland.

To win the GOP nomination, a candidates needs 1,144 delegates.

Romney still shows great weakness among the Republican party's most conservative voters, especially evangelicals, who split a majority of their support between Santorum and Gingrich in Alabama and Mississippi. As long as the two of them stay in the race, even though Santorum is emerging as the main conservative alternative to Romney, the former governor can continue to hold or build his delegate lead. Overall, Romney is getting only a plurality of the delegates chosen, but no one else is doing any better.

The next tests will come Saturday in Missouri and Sunday in Puerto Rico. But Illinois on Tuesday will be the focal point for Romney because it's a delegate-rich mega-state where he is currently narrowly ahead in the polls.

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It's unlikely that any of the GOP candidates can defeat Obama in Illinois in the general election since it's the president's home state and he remains popular there. But a loss for Romney in Illinois would be harmful to his campaign since it would show that his weakness is still deep and extends beyond the conservative South and into the heartland. A Santorum victory there would add to his momentum.

Romney also is likely to win the District of Columbia on April 3, since Santorum failed to qualify for the ballot and the other candidates aren't considered popular in D.C.

Then comes a string of contests that Romney is considered likely to win, including Maryland, Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island--unless Santorum can pull some surprises.

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