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Santorum seeking to coax delegates

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, accompanied by family members, speaks on Tuesday, March 20, in Gettysburg, Pa.

Matt Rourke/Associated Press

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, accompanied by family members, speaks on Tuesday, March 20, in Gettysburg, Pa.

Rick Santorum’s campaign, pushed to the brink after losing badly to Mitt Romney in Illinois, believes it has found a way to cut into Romney’s delegate lead and potentially prevent the former Massachusetts governor from collecting the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination.

Santorum’s unorthodox strategy centers on states where delegates are selected at local party conventions, after the popular vote has been held.

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In those states, such as Washington, where Romney won the popular vote at the caucus, Santorum could still lure delegates to his side, because at these local conventions delegates do not have to follow the results of the popular vote.

The strategy hinges on the idea that picking up even some of these delegates could keep Romney from reaching the threshold. Santorum would then hope to wrest the nomination from Romney in a floor fight at the Republican National Convention in August.

“The people that show up at these conventions are a heck of a lot more conservative than your average voter,’’ said John P. Yob, Santorum’s delegate specialist, who argued that the delegates are not likely to support “a moderate, establishment-backed candidate’’ like Romney.

Romney’s aides said such a strategy, which depends on the ability to organize activists at conventions in far-flung states, is beyond the capabilities of the Santorum campaign, which has struggled even at the more basic task of getting its candidate on the ballot in several states.

“They have not shown any organizational prowess, so why would we think they’re going to be able to do this?’’ said Katie Biber Chen, the Romney campaign’s general counsel.

Rich Beeson, Romney’s political director, called the strategy a “fantastic scheme.’’

“They’re tying to bend the rules of math and reality to fit their narrative, and they can’t,’’ he said.

After winning Illinois on Tuesday, Romney currently has 563 delegates, compared with 263 for Santorum, 135 for Newt Gingrich, and 50 for Ron Paul, according to an Associated Press tally.

Yob said Santorum can close the gap with Romney by at least 80 delegates by organizing at local conventions in Iowa, Missouri, Washington, Colorado, and Minnesota. The campaign, he said, is sending teams of volunteers and paid staff members to those events.

In one legislative district in King County, Washington, for example, Romney won the popular vote at the caucus on March 3, with 47 percent support, compared with 25 percent for Paul and 18 percent for Santorum, Yob said.

But two weeks later, Santorum mobilized activists at the county convention, where delegates were formally selected, and picked up four delegates, compared with three each for Romney and Gingrich and two for Paul.

“The reality is very few delegates have actually been elected across this country at this stage of the contest, and, therefore, no candidate is anywhere near to 1,144 at this stage,’’ Yob said.

If Romney does not have 1,144 delegates at the national convention in August, he asserted, conservative delegates will flock to Santorum on subsequent ballots, making him the nominee.

Josh Putman, a Davidson College political scientist who studies the delegate process, said Santorum can pad his delegate count at local and county conventions. But he doubts those delegates will be enough to prevent Romney from securing the nomination.

“I don’t think it’s going to work out,’’ Putman said. “Romney is going to get to 1,144. But in terms of underdogs in this race, that’s really the only play they have.’’

Jeffrey G. Berman, who was Barack Obama’s delegate director in 2008, sounded a more positive note about Santorum’s strategy.

“It can be effective, if it’s well managed,’’ said Berman, whose new book, “The Magic Number,’’ chronicles the extraordinary lengths taken by the Obama campaign in its battle for delegates against Hillary Rodham Clinton.

“It doesn’t take vast resources,’’ he said. “What it takes is a focused effort.’’

Yob, who served as John McCain’s delegate adviser in 2008, was hired by the Santorum campaign several weeks ago. Previously, he was a top aide to the Gingrich campaign in Yob’s home state of Michigan.

Yob made headlines in Massachusetts in 2010, when he was sued by the state treasurer, Timothy P. Cahill, who accused Yob and his firm, Strategic National, of trying to sabotage his independent campaign for governor.

E-mails released as part of the lawsuit indicated Yob and other Cahill aides may have orchestrated the defection of Cahill’s running mate to the campaign of Republican candidate Charles D. Baker, even while working on Cahill’s payroll.

The case was settled without any admission of guilt after Yob, his firm, and several other Cahill aides agreed to pay the Cahill campaign $45,000 in legal fees. Yob declined to discuss the case.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com.
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