A convincing win for the GOP front-runner could mean the end is finally at hand in the long primary race.



Updated 3/21/2012 9:41 a.m.

In Illinois, Mitt Romney finally got his big win.

The sweeping victory in a big, competitive, high-stakes contest had eluded him in Michigan and Ohio, in Alabama and Mississippi. But on Tuesday night in Illinois, he finally pulled it off. The final totals showed Romney pulling 47 percent of the vote to Rick Santorum's 35 percent.

Some thoughts on the outcome:

* This really is the beginning of the end. It's virtually impossible for Santorum to catch Romney in the delegate count. Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich each took less than 10 percent of the vote. Up to now, the drumbeat of calls for Romney's rivals to give up has been remarkably muted, but you've got to think that's about to change.

* Romney is sounding sharp. His victory speech, which he read from notes rather than off the teleprompter, was a punched-up version of the economic policy address he'd given at the University of Chicago a couple of days before. Gone were the anecdotes about Milton Friedman and economic theory; in their stead were new red-meat lines, which survived their mild mangling by a clearly fatigued Romney: "After...a president who doesn't hesitate to use all means necessary to force Obamacare on the American public but leads from behind in world affairs, it's time to say these words -- this word: enough!" he said. And: "I see an America that is humbled -- excuse me, that is humble but never humbled, that leads but is never led." He sounded like a man running in a general election. He sounded like the Republican nominee.

* Santorum's harangue is getting old. In his speech, delivered in symbolic Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Santorum seemed to accuse Romney of ripping off his theme with the economic freedom argument. The tone of grievance that often underlies Santorum's remarks came to the fore as he depicted Romney as a go-along-to-get-along caretaker: "This is an election about fundamental and foundational things. It's not about who's the best person to manage Washington or manage the economy," he said. "We don't need a manager. We need someone who's going to pull up government by the roots." The speech went on far longer than the Gettysburg Address, which was only 270 words, but injected no new urgency into the project of ousting Romney. Santorum's argument at this point basically comes down to "a lot of people still don't like Mitt Romney." That's true enough. But more people like Romney than anybody else in this field, and more people like him than like Rick Santorum.

* Gingrich took fourth. With just 8 percent of the vote to Ron Paul's 9 percent, Gingrich's flailing campaign now looks about as relevant as Paul's -- that is, not very. He may hope for a revival in Louisiana's primary on Saturday, but Gingrich's time appears to be up, whether or not he cares to acknowledge it. After Louisiana, there are no more primaries until April 3, when D.C., Maryland, and Wisconsin vote. That will give Gingrich and the others plenty of time to ponder their fate.

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