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Republicans may think 'blah' about Mitt Romney, but it's his numbers that count

A lot of Republican primary voters and caucus goers — those who agree with the recent headline reading “Republicans on the 2012 GOP field: Blah” — no doubt find it hard to accept, but Mitt Romney seems more and more likely to be his party’s presidential nominee.

He keeps winning delegates and endorsements, despite losing or just barely winning contests. He’s got a ton of money to overwhelm his opponents in statewide advertising. And his rhetorical howlers — claiming to be more conservative than Rick Santorum when everybody knows he’s a moderate (you could watch it on YouTube) — have not been politically life-threatening.

Republicans are caucusing in Missouri today, and they will be tomorrow in Puerto Rico. But this coming Tuesday is the biggie: the Illinois primary election.

There’s no guarantee that Romney will win, of course. Barely more than one-third of Republicans and Republican-leaning Independents say they’d vote “enthusiastically” for him in the general election, according to Gallup — a lot fewer than John McCain’s 47 percent level of “enthusiastic” voters in 2008.

But Romney is up more than 6 points in the Real Clear Politics polling average, and Nate Silver of the New York TimesFiveThirtyEight political blog gives him an 86 percent chance of winning. (The Intrade prediction market puts Romney’s chances of winning Illinois at 92 percent.)

Yesterday, Romney won the endorsement of the Chicago Tribune, a major voice in Illinois politics. The newspaper editorialized:

“The United States — its people's sense of normalcy and, more gravely, their future prosperity — is in danger…. Only one of the four Republicans still in this primary race has the personal skill set, the painfully won experience, to appreciate this peril and to guide Americans through their own financial rescue…. For his demonstrated abilities and the economic pragmatism at his core, the Tribune endorses former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts as the Republicans' best, most responsible choice in Tuesday's Illinois primary. The other three contestants, for lack of Romney's credibility on this threat to the American way, can only try to talk a good game. We're far more confident that Romney is the candidate best equipped to keep the U.S. from devolving into New Europe.”

The headline on University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s “Crystal Ball” blog reads “Romney Set to Dominate Race Through April.” From now through April, professor Sabato and his colleagues predict, Romney will add 268 delegates to his stable compared to 117 for Santorum. That includes 34 in Illinois (20 for Santorum).

Santorum may dominate in Louisiana (the one southern state during this period) and his home state of Pennsylvania, according to Sabato’s reckoning. But Romney will dominate in Maryland, Wisconsin, Connecticut, New York, and other states and the District of Columbia.

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At the moment, according to the Associated Press “delegate tracker,” Romney has 495, Santorum 252, Newt Gingrich 131, and Ron Paul 48. (The first candidate to reach 1,144 delegates will win the Republican nomination.)

“Barring a massive, difficult to fathom shift in this contest, Mitt Romney has a better than 80 percent chance to be the GOP nominee,” Sabato and his colleagues wrote this week. “The reason is that, much like when Hillary Clinton was fighting a front-running Barack Obama in the last few months of the 2008 Democratic primary, the delegate math — and particularly the lack of true winner take all contests — favors the candidate with the big delegate lead.”

As the campaign clock ticks on toward the GOP convention in Tampa, Fla. in August, that looks increasingly to be Mitt Romney.

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