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Illinois primary: For Mitt Romney, delegates less important than 'winning'

The Illinois primary Tuesday is an opportunity for Mitt Romney to extend his delegate lead on Rick Santorum. But a big win in the popular vote might be more important. 

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Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney speaks at the University of Chicago Monday in advance of the Illinois primary Tuesday.

Steven Senne/AP

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In the elusive search for momentum in the Republican presidential race, Illinois is emerging as an important prize.

Not only are 54 delegates at play in the state's primary Tuesday, but perhaps more important, the popular vote could go some way toward grooming public perception heading into the next round of primaries.

So far, Mitt Romney has eked his way through the Midwest, losing to Rick Santorum in Iowa and barely edging him in Michigan and Ohio, though the rules of awarding delegates meant his victory in Ohio was wider than the popular vote. 

Now, Mr. Romney has a chance to win a big state more emphatically, casting himself as the inevitable nominee.

“Romney is desperate to make people who are on the fence conclude that there’s just no way he can’t get the nomination, and he’s the only game in town to beat Obama,” says Brian Gaines, a political scientist at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois in Urbana.

That's why candidates aren't just focused on the mechanical collection of district delegates in Illinois, which is not winner-take-all. They want to get more votes statewide. 

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