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Louisiana primary keeps Santorum’s hopes alive as Gingrich, Paul fade

While Santorum led front-runner Mitt Romney by a wide margin in Louisiana’s popular vote Saturday (49-27 percent), the results did little to close the delegate gap between the two.

The Louisiana primary was a boost for Rick Santorum’s presidential hopes. But while Santorum led front-runner Mitt Romney by a wide margin in Louisiana’s popular vote Saturday (49-27 percent), the results did little to close the delegate gap between the two.

Meanwhile, between now and early May the GOP primary schedule — northern states with large urban populations — favors Romney, who already has major advantages in campaign funds and organization.

“I think the primary’s over,” Senator Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina said on CNN‘s “State of the Union” Sunday. “Romney will be the nominee.”

Santorum notched a mere five-delegate advantage over Romney in Louisiana. But the former Massachusetts governor has accumulated twice as many delegates as Santorum — 568 to 273.

Romney still needs to get to 1,144 to win the nomination. But as the two leading candidates fight their way through the election calendar, it becomes tougher and tougher for Santorum to catch up. He failed to win a spot on the ballot in the District of Columbia, which holds its primary in nine days.

In Wisconsin, the most delegate-rich state holding the next round of primaries on April 3, Romney and his independent super PAC have plowed more than $2 million into TV advertising. A crush of advertising — mostly negative — eroded Santorum’s strength in states such as Michigan, Ohio, and Illinois as he simply couldn’t keep pace.

“This race has clearly gotten down to two candidates that can win the nomination,” Santorum told reporters in Milwaukee Saturday. “I’d love to have a one-on-one debate.”

Romney’s team, increasingly confident, dismissed the idea — and with good reason.

Santorum had led in some Wisconsin polls, but momentum there is shifting to Romney, favored 46-33 in a Rasmussen Reports survey out Friday. (Gingrich and Paul remain in single digits in Wisconsin, according to Rasmussen.)

“There is a growing perception that Romney is going to be the nominee [84 percent] and there is a growing perception that he is the strongest candidate against Barack Obama [59 percent],” Scott Rasmussen told the (Milwaukee) Journal Sentinel. “Those things are moving the Republican nomination into its end phase.”

Nate Silver, who writes the FiveThirtyEight political blog for the New York Times, scans a range of polls to conclude that Romney will win Wisconsin 49-35 over Santorum (with Gingrich and Paul in single digits).

As Mr. Silver points out, Santorum also is losing ground to Romney in Gallup’s national tracking poll.

“Mitt Romney’s national support among Republican voters has surged in recent days, coincident with his decisive victory in the Illinois primary and a prominent endorsement from Jeb Bush,” Gallup’s Jeffrey Jones reported Friday. “Romney’s support has increased to 40 percent, the first time a candidate has reached that level in this campaign, and his lead over Rick Santorum is back into double digits after narrowing to four percentage points on March 20.”

Perhaps more significant than former Florida governor Bush’s endorsement, Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina — the closest thing to a tea party leader in Congress — had very positive things to say about Romney this week.

“I am not only comfortable with Romney, I’m excited about the possibility of him possibly being our nominee,” he told reporters. “His leadership skills, the fact he hasn’t lived in his life in Washington. There is a lot to like there.”

Santorum’s brightest hope may be his home state of Pennsylvania, which holds its primary April 24 (along with Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and Rhode Island).

But even there, Santorum could have a problem, points out Jonathan Tobin, senior online editor of Commentary Magazine. “Apparently he won’t have delegate slates in every district meaning that even if he holds on and wins the popular vote there, Romney may still win a majority of delegates.”

As for Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, they were left trailing badly in Louisiana — a particular disappointment for Gingrich, who had spent a week campaigning there and hoped to at least stay viable in the South.

“This is clearly still an open race,” Gingrich said in a statement Saturday night — obviously an assertion based more on campaign bravado than on fact. Under Louisiana’s delegate distribution rules, he failed to win a single one. Paul came away empty-handed as well.