SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - Mitt Romney scored an overwhelming win Sunday in Puerto Rico’s Republican presidential primary, trouncing chief rival Rick Santorum on the Caribbean island even as the two rivals looked ahead to more competitive contests this week in Illinois and Louisiana.
The victory in the US territory was so convincing that Romney, the GOP front-runner, won all 20 delegates to the national convention at stake because he got more than 50 percent of the vote. That padded his comfortable lead over Santorum in the race to amass 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination.
Nevertheless, the GOP nomination fight is unlikely to end anytime soon, with Santorum refusing to step aside even though Romney is pulling further ahead in the delegate hunt.
As the day began, Santorum claimed he was in contest for the long haul because Romney is a weak front-runner.
“This is a primary process where somebody had a huge advantage, huge money advantage, huge advantage of establishment support, and he hasn’t been able to close the deal and even come close to closing the deal,’’ Santorum said. “That tells you that there’s a real flaw there.’’
Yet, Santorum sidestepped when asked if he would fight Romney on the convention floor if he failed before August to stop the former Massachusetts governor from getting the required number of delegates.
Romney, in turn, expressed confidence that he would prevail. “I can’t tell you exactly how the process is going to work,’’ he said. “But I bet I’m going to become the nominee.’’
Both are aggressively competing in the next two states to vote. Illinois, a more moderate Midwestern state, is seen as more friendly territory for Romney, while Santorum is the favorite in the more conservative Southern state of Louisiana. Illinois will hold its primary Tuesday, and Louisiana votes Saturday.
Before Puerto Rico’s vote was in, Romney had 501 delegates and Santorum had 253, according to an Associated Press’ tally. Former House speaker Newt Gingrich trailed with 136 delegates and Representative Ron Paul of Texas had 50.
At this rate, Romney is on pace to capture the nomination in June unless Santorum or Gingrich is able to win decisively in the coming contests.
Both have said they would stay in the race and perhaps force the nomination to a fight at the GOP’s convention in Tampa if Romney does not amass enough delegates to arrive with a mandate. That would turn the convention into an intra-party brawl for the first time since 1976.
In Puerto Rico, officials said about 150,000 people cast ballots in primary.
Among them was Francisco Rodriguez, 76, an architect who supported Romney, in part because he had secured the endorsement of Governor Luis Fortuno and other leading politicians.
“He has a stronger connection to Puerto Rico and that will help us in the process of becoming a state,’’ Rodriguez said.
With half of the states yet to weigh in, GOP National Chairman Reince Priebus insisted his party will have a nominee sooner rather than later.
“We’re only at halftime,’’ Priebus said. “I think that this process is going to play itself out. We will have a nominee, I think, fairly soon - one, two months away.’’
Romney and Santorum appeared on national TV news programs and met with voters Sunday, trading barbs from afar.
In Rockford, Ill., Romney said about Santorum, “We’re not going to replace an economic lightweight with another economic lightweight.’’
That drew a Santorum retort: “If Mitt Romney’s an economic heavyweight, we’re in trouble.’’