NEW: Romney picks up at least 41 delegates in Illinois
Romney state chair suggests it's time for rivals to consider quitting
His projected Illinois win may be the "final big turning point," CNN analyst says
Santorum says he's staying in: "We don't need a manager"
With a decisive win in the Illinois presidential primary, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney sets his sights on the bayou where Louisiana holds the next Republican primary.
“We thank the people of Illinois for this extraordinary victory,” Romney told supporters in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg. “Elections are about choices. Today, hundreds of thousands of people in Illinois joined millions of people in this country in this cause.”
With 99% of precincts reporting, Romney led former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum by a 47%-to-35% margin. Texas Rep. Ron Paul was running third at 9%, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 8%.
With the victory, Romney was poised to win at least 41 of the 54 delegates up for grabs in the state, giving him a total of 562, according to CNN’s estimate. Santorum is second with 249, Gingrich third with 137 and Paul last with 69.
A total of 1,144 delegates are needed to clinch the GOP nomination.
Louisiana will hold its primary on Saturday.
The victory led several observers to question whether the remaining GOP field can deny Romney the chance to carry the party’s standard against President Barack Obama in November.
Romney “hasn’t definitely won,” CNN political analyst David Gergen said. “But in a campaign that has had many, many unexpected twists and turns, I think we may look back tonight and say tonight was the final big turning point.
“Here in a big state, Newt Gingrich has faded as a candidate,” Gergen said. “Santorum had a chance to go one-on-one against Romney, in effect, and Santorum somehow has gone off the rails in his campaign.”
Santorum has made a series of high-profile gaffes in the past week, saying Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico needs to adopt English as its principal language to become a U.S. state, and saying Monday that the unemployment rate “doesn’t matter to me.” Romney’s campaign jumped on the remark, but Santorum said that “of course” he cared about joblessness – but his candidacy was “about freedom.”
Santorum skipped Illinois on primary night and awaited the results in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. In his concession speech, below a banner that proclaimed “Freedom,” he said he was staying in the race to battle a government he said is “trying to order us around.”
“This is an election about fundamental and foundational things,” Santorum said. “This is an election about not who’s the best person to manage Washington or manage the economy. We don’t need a manager, we need someone who’s going to pull government up by the roots and do something to liberate the private sector in America.”
In Illinois, he led among blue-collar voters, in rural areas and among those who considered themselves “very conservative,” according to the exit polls. But the surveys showed Romney leading heavily among the more than 50% of voters who ranked the economy as the No. 1 issue in the campaign. And among the 37% who considered the chances of beating President Barack Obama in November their top quality in a candidate, three-quarters said they were voting for Romney.
Gingrich, meanwhile, issued a statement blasting Romney for relying on his vast financial resources rather than offering “solutions that hold the president accountable for his failures.”
“To defeat Barack Obama, Republicans can’t nominate a candidate who relies on outspending his opponents 7-1,” Gingrich said.
But Romney campaign spokeswoman Andrea Saul said, “That’s like a basketball team complaining they lost to another team because their players were too tall.”
“Fundraising is part of a campaign. So is organization,” she said.