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Analysis: Santorum looking more like spoiler in Republican race

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Blown out in Illinois, Rick Santorum now has a far tougher path to the Republican presidential nomination and looks more like he is reduced to playing the role of spoiler against rival Mitt Romney.

The former Pennsylvania senator could have upended Romney's up-and-down campaign with a surprise upset in Illinois. Instead, Santorum will face important questions about how he can possibly overtake Romney's lead in the race for the 1,144 delegates needed for the nomination.

"There's no way that Santorum will amass more delegates than Mitt Romney, barring something really unforeseen," said Republican pollster Whit Ayres. "His whole strategy now is to keep Romney from amassing a majority of the delegates, throwing the convention open."

Santorum's plunging fortunes leave the impression among many that he is simply playing the role of spoiler, hoping to prevent Romney from getting enough delegates to clinch the nomination to challenge Democratic President Barack Obama in the November 6 election.

Blocking Romney from that goal would force Republicans to throw open their nominating convention in late August in Tampa, Florida and give Santorum a last-gasp chance to peel delegates away from his rivals and emerge triumphant.

Attention will shift now to Louisiana, which votes on Saturday. Santorum leads there and should win. But in the weeks after that, the map looks tough for the social conservative.

Washington D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin vote on April 3 and Romney will likely win at least two of three. April 24 looms as a potentially decisive date when Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Indiana vote.

Only Pennsylvania, Santorum's home state, seems a safe bet for him and even there he could lose some delegates to Romney, a former governor of Massachusetts whose more moderate record is more appealing among Republicans in the northeastern United States.

DROP OUT HINTS

Members of Romney's team are dropping hints that it may be time for Santorum to exit the race and help Republicans unite behind Romney.

"The pool for Santorum to find delegates shrinks drastically (after Illinois)," said a senior Romney adviser. "There's less and less of a compelling reason for him to stay in other than you want to prevent Mitt from being the nominee."

Should Santorum step aside? "He has to decide for himself," the adviser said.

Santorum has positioned himself as the true conservative in the Republican race and has appealed to the most conservative elements of the party. He has been rewarded with important victories in the South.

But in Illinois, Santorum, a Catholic who has pushed social and cultural issues, did not do as well among some parts of the party as he might have hoped. Tea Party conservatives, who care deeply about debt and deficits, went for Romney by 43 percent to 37 percent for Santorum.

And Romney won Catholics again, as he did in Ohio and Michigan: this time by 48 percent to 32 percent.

And all this took place in a state where former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich barely campaigned, leaving the kind of one-on-one competition that Santorum has said he wants.

"Santorum wanted a two-man race, got it and he is getting stomped," said Jim Dyke, a South Carolina-based Republican strategist. "It was one of the last remaining rationales for the Santorum campaign, which has little ability to organize, a message that isn't resonating with a majority of Republicans and no money. As they say at the US Open -- game, set, match."

Santorum stumbled in the week leading up to the Illinois contest. He spent time campaigning in Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory that Romney later won decisively, and hurt himself by saying English should be the main language there should Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico become a U.S. state.

On his return to Illinois, Santorum generated controversy by declaring, "I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates."

He was later forced to walk back the comment and clarify that of course he is concerned about the jobless rate during a presidential campaign that is all about the weak U.S. economy and Obama's handling of it.

"I think Santorum's campaign is in a really bad patch right now," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

While Santorum insisted after his Illinois loss that his campaign is going full steam ahead, Yepsen said Santorum may have a better shot at the Republican nomination in 2016.

"To be fair to Rick Santorum, think 2016," he said. "He is young enough and done well enough that he can slog on and at some point if he can recognize the inevitable and make a graceful exit, he can live to fight another day."

(Editing by Alistair Bell and Christopher Wilson)

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