Front-running Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney appears poised to widen his lead with a victory in Illinois, where polls show he has an edge over top rival Rick Santorum in the primary contest there.
US television networks on Tuesday projected Romney as the winner of the latest battle in the volatile campaign for the White House. With 11 per cent of the vote counted, he had 56 per cent of the vote compared to 27 per cent for Santorum.
Romney hopes a solid win will give him a fresh burst of momentum in the campaign for the nomination and persuade the party to rally around him and end an increasingly bitter nominating battle.
Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, has more than twice as many delegates as Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, and his campaign has argued that his rivals cannot catch him in the race to pick a challenger to Democratic President Barack Obama in the November election.
Two Illinois polls on Monday gave Romney double-digit leads over Santorum. A Public Policy Polling survey said Romney led Santorum by 15 percentage points, and an American Research Group poll put the lead at 14 points.
The other two contenders still in the race, former House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich and libertarian Ron Paul, lagged badly in both polls, and the contest is essentially one-on-one between Santorum and Romney.
Santorum, a staunch social conservative who has attacked Romney as too moderate to lead the party against Obama, shrugged off the polls and held on to hopes for an upset that would dramatically reshape the race.
"I predict if you are able to do what I know most people think is impossible, which is carry the state of Illinois, that will fundamentally change this election like no other contest to date," Santorum told voters on Monday.
Santorum and Gingrich, a fellow conservative, hope to keep Romney from capturing the necessary 1,144 delegates by the time the nominating contests end in June, leaving the choice up for grabs among the party's mostly conservative delegates heading into the August nominating convention in Tampa, Florida.
Romney has 518 delegates to Santorum's 239, according to a count by CNN. There are 69 delegates up for grabs in Illinois on Tuesday, but Santorum will not be eligible to win many of them because of his campaign's failure to satisfy the primary's complex rules. He failed to qualify for the ballot in four of Illinois' 18 congressional districts.
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