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Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign stop at the American Legion in Moline, Illinois March 18, 2012. (JIM YOUNG/REUTERS/JIM YOUNG/REUTERS)
Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney greets supporters during a campaign stop at the American Legion in Moline, Illinois March 18, 2012. (JIM YOUNG/REUTERS/JIM YOUNG/REUTERS)

Romney looks to quash Santorum's momentum in Illinois Add to ...

If this is Tuesday, it must be another critical primary day for Javelin and Petrus.

Those would be the Secret Service code names of Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, who, for the fourth Tuesday in a row, are battling for their political lives in a Republican presidential race that was supposed to have ended weeks ago.

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Javelin (the security handle for Mr. Romney as revealed by GQ magazine) is hoping that a big win in diverse, industrial Illinois will quash the Petrus insurgency once and for all.

Illinois is Barack Obama’s home state and the President is expected to carry it easily in the fall election.

But the outcome of the primary between Mr. Santorum and Mr. Romney is important because it will hinge on how each performs among social conservatives in the southern part of the state compared to moderate voters in the Chicago suburbs.

And that could be a harbinger for future primaries and the general election.

The latest polls show Mr. Romney with more support than Mr. Santorum and Newt Gingrich combined, deflating Mr. Santorum’s argument that Mr. Gingrich’s refusal to drop out of the race is preventing “true conservatives” from coalescing around him.

Even if Mr. Romney pulls off a compelling victory in Illinois, however, Mr. Santorum’s candidacy could get a new shot in the arm in coming days as the Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments on the constitutionality of Mr. Obama’s health-care law.

Mr. Santorum argues that the Obama legislation – reviled by U.S. conservatives as the opening salvo in a “government takeover” of health care – used as its template the health-care legislation Mr. Romney passed in 2006 as governor of Massachusetts.

The ex-Pennsylvania senator appears to have given up challenging Mr. Romney on his ability to manage the economy, especially now that the latter is improving, and is increasingly trying to make the GOP race about values and core convictions.

“I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be,” Mr. Santorum said on Monday. “My campaign doesn’t hinge on unemployment and growth rates.”

A total of 54 of 69 Illinois delegates are up for grabs on Tuesday night, the remainder being selected later at a state convention or allocated automatically to members of the Republican National Committee.

Mr. Santorum starts out with a disadvantage, having failed to qualify for delegates in four of the state’s 18 congressional districts. As a result, Mr. Romney is poised to pad his 2-to-1 delegate lead over Mr. Santorum.

According to estimates, Mr. Santorum would need to win as many as three-quarters of the remaining delegates to have any chance of surpassing Mr. Romney before final primary in late June in Utah.

But instead of overtaking Mr. Romney, the Santorum campaign appears to be focused on preventing the ex-Massachusetts governor from amassing the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination before the party’s late August convention in Tampa.

That could throw the race wide open, as delegates bound to vote for Mr. Romney on the first ballot would be freed to support Mr. Santorum or another candidate in subsequent rounds.

As for those Secret Service code names, Mr. Romney, the son of a former head of now-defunct American Motors, appears to have taken his from the AMC Javelin, a muscle car built between 1967 and 1974.

Mr. Santorum, who has made his Catholic faith the focus of his politics, seems to have taken his code name from the Latin word for “rock.” In the New Testament, St. Peter, the first pope, is the “rock” on which God founds his Church.

Follow on Twitter: @konradyakabuski

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