GOP Fight for Delegates Stretches to Puerto Rico
WASHINGTON - An upbeat Rick Santorum barreled into Puerto Rico on Wednesday in pursuit of another campaign-bending victory in a Republican presidential race where suddenly no primary is too minor and no delegate is conceded. Mitt Romney put nearly $1 million into television advertising in Illinois, the next big-state showdown.
"If we keep winning races, eventually people are going to figure out that Gov. Romney is not going to be the nominee," said Santorum, eager to build on Tuesday’s unexpected victories in Alabama and Mississippi.
Romney in turn dismissed Santorum as a "lightweight" as far as the economy is concerned.
He also rebutted suggestions that he can’t appeal to core conservatives. "You don’t win a million more votes than anyone else in this race by just appealing to high-income Americans," he said on Fox News. "Some who are very conservative may not be in my camp, but they will be when I become the nominee, when I face Barack Obama."
Romney travels to Puerto Rico on Friday, after two days in New York fundraising.
But in a reflection of the importance of next week’s Illinois primary, aides announced he would make a previously unscheduled campaign stop in the Chicago area en route to San Juan.
Newt Gingrich, despite losing twice in the South, a region he hoped to own in the race, showed no sign of abandoning his fading campaign.
That presumably suited Romney fine. But not so much Santorum, eager for a race in which he is the sole challenger on the right for Romney, the former Massachusetts governor.
The events of the previous 24 hours neatly summarized the most turbulent Republican presidential campaign in a generation.
Santorum’s primary victories in Mississippi and Alabama were the product of a wellspring of conservative support that overcame Romney’s overwhelming organizational and financial advantages in the race to pick a November opponent for Democrat Obama.
Yet despite his twin defeats in the South, Romney remains the faraway leader in the delegate chase. Incomplete returns showed him actually adding one or two to his advantage because of overnight caucus victories in Hawaii and American Samoa.
That division - headline-grabbing primary victories versus routine accumulation of delegates - emerged as an increasingly significant point of contention as Romney, Santorum and Gingrich selected facts and spun theories designed to put their own hopes in the best light.
Romney’s aides point out that he has more than half the delegates picked so far, and he has said he’s on track to win the nomination before the party convention opens in August.
"Tuesday’s results actually increased Governor Romney’s delegate lead, while his opponents only moved closer to their date of mathematical elimination," said a campaign memo written during the day for public circulation.
Santorum’s camp outline a strategy that relies on increasing strength in later primaries coupled with outmaneuvering Romney in caucus states where the front-runner showed early strength but delegates have yet to be picked.
"Simply put, time is on our side," the Santorum campaign said in a memo early in the week. The campaign pledged a floor fight at the Republican National Convention over the seating of winner-take-all delegations in Arizona and Florida, both of which Romney won. It also envisioned two or three rounds of convention balloting before a nominee is selected.
But it skipped lightly over Illinois, where the former Pennsylvania senator fell 10 delegates short of a full slate for the March 20 primary.
Gingrich’s campaign countered with a memo Tuesday that said Louisiana’s primary on March 24 is just the halfway point in the campaign and the former House speaker had succeeded in a goal of blocking "an early Romney nomination." Long gone was an earlier claim that Gingrich would be roughly even with Romney in delegates by April or May.
While the campaigns maneuvered for position, the race was on for primaries in Puerto Rico on Sunday, Illinois on Tuesday and Louisiana on March 24.