Despite Mitt Romney's decisive Illinois win, his rivals see no reason to drop out and the Republican presidential contest is unlikely to be settled before June, analysts say.
April looks like a golden opportunity for the former Massachusetts governor and clear but hardly commanding frontrunner to nail down the nomination, with contests in northeastern states where Romney is seen as having strong support.
But May -- when more conservative states like Texas, Nebraska and Kentucky go to the polls -- could be a momentum builder for Romney's main rival, Rick Santorum, who has cast himself as a more conservative alternative.
The former senator from Pennsylvania lags far behind in delegates, but has been a major thorn in Romney's side since winning a handful of states in January and February by rallying the party's base.
Despite the odds being against him, "there's really no reason for Santorum to get out," Henry Olsen, director of the American Enterprise Institute's National Research Initiative, told AFP after the think tank held a panel discussion on the campaign.
"April is a bad month for Santorum, but May is a great month."
That could leave candidates chasing all-important delegates into June, when the largest state California would likely end up pushing Romney over the top to the nomination, the AEI experts said.
But it could be a stalemate until then, even if Romney outpaces his rivals as they seek the magic number of 1,144 delegates to the Republican convention, where a nominee is officially crowned.
"There's no way Romney can get to 1,144 if Santorum stays in the race, until California votes" on June 5, Olsen said.
Complicating matters is former House speaker Newt Gingrich, a wild card who is trailing a distant third but refuses to drop out.
Santorum had gunned for an upset in Illinois, rallying conservatives to stay true to their principles rather than give their vote to a moderate just because he is the "choice of the establishment Republicans."
It didn't happen, and a resounding Romney win gives the frontrunner momentum ahead of Louisiana's primary on Saturday and contests in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, DC on April 3.
Romney has now won 21 of the 33 contests, while Santorum has won 10 -- largely with the help of evangelicals and the party's most conservative members -- and Gingrich has won two, including his home state of Georgia.
AEI resident fellow Michael Barone agreed that Romney had a long slog ahead, in part because previously winner-take-all states have begun awarding delegates proportionally, making it harder for anyone to quickly clinch the race.
"Because of the new Republican Party rules... it's not really possible for Mitt Romney to win, even with the majority of delegates, until June," Barone told AFP.
But when California does vote, it will be a "huge win for Romney," Olsen said. Romney is expected to win delegate-rich New Jersey, which also votes on June 5, and Utah, where many share his Mormon faith, on June 26.
Norman Ornstein, a longtime observer of presidential elections and author of several books on Congress, agreed that it was Romney's race to lose.
"The way things are going, Mitt Romney just needs to be patient and he's going to be the nominee," Ornstein said.
"There's virtually no chance that Santorum and Gingrich combined can do more than keep him from getting close to the magic 1,144."
Some party insiders say the nomination might have to be settled by backroom dealing at the convention in Tampa in late August, but Ornstein dismisses that as highly unlikely.
"I don't think the super delegates (party officials who attend the convention and vote for whomever they choose) are going to want to go through a brokered convention," he said.
"I think they'll fall into line" behind Romney.
But Ornstein warned of Romney's propensity to go off script, which has often landed the multimillionaire businessman in hot water by making him appear out of touch with the struggles of ordinary Americans.
"The longer this goes on, the more there are opportunities for him to improvise," Ornstein said. "And every time he improvises, he shoots himself in some part of his anatomy."
Source: AFP American Edition