*** All eyes on Illinois: The earliest Mitt Romney could win the 1,144 delegates needed to capture the GOP nomination, per our count, is May 29, and that’s assuming he wins every single delegate after today. If you assume that he wins a 60%-40% split of the remaining the delegates, Romney won’t get to 1,144 until June 26, when Utah holds its primary. And if Romney and Rick Santorum continue to trade victories as they’ve been doing over the past month -- with Santorum winning his demographic strongholds and Romney winning his -- Romney would fall about 50 delegates short of the magic number, according to our math. So that’s the delegate reality for the former Massachusetts governor: He leads, he isn’t going to lose his lead, yet crossing the finish line won’t be easy or come quickly. Romney can’t change the math, but he can change the perception of the race. And he gets another chance to do so in today’s Illinois primary.
*** How Romney can change the perception: Every time Romney has had an opportunity to put the race away -- by winning in South Carolina, by winning convincingly in Ohio, by winning just one Deep South state Tennessee, Alabama or Mississippi -- he’s failed to do so. But by decisively winning tonight in Illinois (and we’re talking about a double-digit-plus victory and breaking 50%), Romney can deliver a perception blow to Santorum, extinguishing the former Pennsylvania senator’s “insurgent fire,” as the New York Times puts it. And sweeping the April 3 contests -- with the crown jewel being Wisconsin -- would serve as an exclamation point. That probably would finally get the Haley Barbours, the Mitch Danielseseseses (say it with us), and the Paul Ryans (more on him below) off the sidelines. But if Romney only ekes out a single-digit victory tonight after outspending Santorum 7-1, and if he loses Wisconsin, then this demographic split would be for real. And that means this GOP race would go into June or beyond.