Romney wins Illinois, but is the long primary fight hurting his chances against Obama?

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney easily won Tuesday’s primary in Illinois, but his rivals are showing little sign they will step aside and give Romney the chance to focus exclusively on President Obama.

Romney collected 47 percent of the vote in the primary, winning by 12 points over former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, his closest competitor. He is likely to capture the vast majority of the state’s 54 delegates, widening his already large lead in the contest.

Entering Tuesday, Romney’s delegate haul of 443 is more than the combined totals of his rivals. (Santorum has 184, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich 137 and Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.) 34).

And yet, none of his three opponents have signaled they would consider stepping aside in the face of Romney’s almost insurmountable lead. Gingrich, in particular, seems hell-bent on blocking Romney from earning the 1,144 delegates that would clinch the nomination, openly talking about contesting Romney until the GOP’s nominating convention in August.

“To defeat Barack Obama, Republicans can’t nominate a candidate who relies on outspending his opponents 7-1. Instead, we need a nominee who offers powerful solutions that hold the president accountable for his failures,” Gingrich said in a statement, after learning of his latest defeat, taking a jab at Romney’s advantage in campaign spending.

Gingrich, who won just 8 percent of the vote, added, “This campaign will spend between now and when the delegates vote in Tampa, relentlessly taking the fight to President Obama.”

Both Gingrich and Santorum criticize Romney for not consolidating the votes of the most conservative members of the GOP, and say that gives them a rationale to continue their candidacies. Exit polls of the Illinois primary showed that Santorum defeated Romney among self-identified evangelical Christians and “very conservative” voters in the state, continuing the pattern from earlier primaries.

The increasingly elongated process is worrying some Republicans.

“The scales have moved from the long process being a positive to being a negative, given the fact that the Republicans are cutting each other up, and it’s an unpleasant picture to look at,” party strategist Karl Rove said in a recent interview on FOX News.

Obama’s top adviser, David Axelrod, has dubbed Romney’s path to the nomination a “death march” that is forcing him to shift to the political right in ways that will hurt him in the general election.

To be sure, even Obama campaign advisers privately say they expect the general election to be much closer than in 2008, when Obama won a historic landslide. The president’s team, for example, has already largely conceded Indiana, a state he won four years ago.

In another sign of weakness, the campaign is unlikely to try aggressively contesting any states won by Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008, although officials have suggested the campaign could compete in Arizona and Georgia. And most polls show Obama with only a slim lead over Romney, even as the president has spent months wooing voters in the political middle, while the former governor must appeal to conservatives who are voting in primaries.

“I don’t think anybody in their right mind thinks that this way the primaries have played out has been good for the Republican chances,” said Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour in an interview this week on ABC News. “But what to me is remarkable is it hasn’t helped Obama much. If this Republican nick-nick-nick-nick kind of primary is really hurting, he ought to be soaring. Well, he’s not soaring.”

With neither Romney or Obama surging in polls, the last two months have nonetheless created a political dynamic much different than in January, when it initially seemed the Obama-Romney contest would start immediately and be almost exclusively about the economy.

A new set of issues, from his policy on contraception to high gas prices, have challenged the president, even as the unemployment rate has dropped.

For Romney, a high jobless rate underpinned his argument that the U.S. needed a businessman to rebuild the American economy, and the improving conditions in some ways undermine the rationale for his candidacy.

And Romney’s weakness among conservatives, Tea Party members and evangelicals, which were already apparent in January, have been put into much sharper focus during the last two months, as Republicans in the South and Midwest, in particular, have not lined up behind Romney, and instead helped Santorum win primaries in those regions.

As a result, whenever Romney collects enough delegates to win the primary, he will immediately face pressure from his political right to pick a person like Santorum or Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) who has strong links to the Tea Party, as his running mate, perhaps eschewing a figure with more appeal to independent voters.

Follow Perry Bacon Jr. on Twitter at @perrybaconjr