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Rick Santorum looking more like spoiler in GOP fight for nominee

WASHINGTON -- 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 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 Nov. 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.

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