(CNN) — Mitt Romney will handily win Sunday’s Republican presidential primary in Puerto Rico, CNN projects, based on vote results obtained from local party and election officials.
At 10:35 p.m. ET, with about 52% of total ballots accounted for, the former Massachusetts governor had a substantial lead with more than 61,000 votes — or 83% of the vote.
Rick Santorum was a distant second, at 8% with slightly more than 5,600 votes.
The other two candidates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Texas Rep. Ron Paul, were further behind with 2% and 1% of the vote, respectively.
Speaking at a rally Sunday night in Vernon Hills, Illinois, Romney said that Puerto Rican voters were clear about which of the four candidates “most represent their feelings” — and especially their desire to nominate someone who can bring about a stronger economy and smaller government. He said his party can appeal to Latinos, and win the presidency, with a low-tax, pro-business message.
“Those people who don’t think that Latinos will vote for a Republican need to take a look in Puerto Rico,” said the former Massachusetts governor, noting that the territory’s governor and its legislative leaders are conservative.
“Hispanic voters are going to vote for Republicans if we stand for something — conservative principles that bring growth and good jobs and rising home values. That’s how we’re going to win, and we’re going to get Latino voters to help us out.”
Romney had entered the contest in Puerto Rico as the favorite. He was largely backed by the island government’s political establishment, including Gov. Luis Fortuno, who campaigned with Romney last week.
By winning the territory, Romney will be awarded 20 delegates, according to a CNN projection.
Given that, CNN’s latest delegate estimates show Romney with 518 delegates to Santorum’s 239. Gingrich is 100 delegates behind Santorum, and Paul, the libertarian champion, has 69 delegates. To secure the nomination, 1,144 delegates are needed.
Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, wasn’t conceding anything last week as he campaigned on the island Wednesday and Thursday.
He and the other candidates, however, were on the mainland Sunday vying for support in the still tumultuous GOP race.
Specifically, Santorum was in Louisiana, where he is expected to win the primary there on Saturday.
Romney spent Sunday in Illinois, which holds its primary Tuesday and where polls indicate he has a small lead in Illinois over Santorum, with Gingrich and Paul well back.
He came there after his own visit to Puerto Rico, which included a raucous rally Friday night that featured hours of upbeat music and dancing, including some local politicians onstage, that built up to Romney’s keynote speech.
“What a beautiful island. What a beautiful place,” exclaimed Romney, who did not dance but clapped to the beat as he sat on stage for almost two hours. “What a wonderful culture you enjoy. What a wonderful people you are. Citizens of this great land. Citizens of America!”
Santorum created a small political firestorm on the island when he said last week that English should be the principal language in Puerto Rico before it could gain statehood. Puerto Rico will vote on a statehood referendum in November.
Romney’s campaign offered a different position the following day, with spokeswoman Andrea Saul saying that Romney “would not, as a prerequisite for statehood, require that the people of Puerto Rico cease using Spanish.”
However, at CNN’s debate ahead of Florida’s primary in January, Romney said that English should be the nation’s official language.
After arriving in Puerto Rico on Friday, Romney said he would have “no preconditions” on language for Puerto Rico to gain statehood.
Minutes later, Santorum deputy communications director Matt Beynon tweeted, “So Romney once supported English as national language, then goes to Puerto Rico and says no language req on statehood. #FlipFlop? #Pander?”
Santorum’s communications director, Hogan Gidley, noted broad support for English as the nation’s official language and said in an e-mail to reporters, “How can Romney say he supports English as the official language of America and not believe Puerto Rico should speak English? If he’ll spend the whole election being untruthful about his positions — it makes you wonder what else he’s being untruthful about.”
But Saul responded, “Gov. Romney supports making English the official language of the United States government. This should have no impact on Puerto Rico’s statehood effort. English has been an official language of Puerto Rico for over 100 years.”
Puerto Rico’s primary came two days before the showdown in Illinois, where 54 delegates will be awarded proportionally and polls show a tight race between Romney and Santorum.
Asked Saturday while campaigning in Missouri about whether a win in Illinois would mean he’d win the nomination, Santorum replied, “We feel very, very good about it. Let’s put it that way. Really good about it.”
Both Santorum and Romney this weekend focused most of their rhetoric at President Barack Obama, particularly regarding rising energy costs.
Romney said Obama needed to fire Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar for their part in driving up gas prices.
“Given the fact that (Obama has) changed his policies, wants lower gas prices, he needs to fire them and return to the energy policies we need,” Romney told a town hall meeting in Collinsville, Illinois.
Santorum told a crowd in Effingham, Illinois, to remember Obama at the gas pumps.
“When you see that zero come up, when it gets to the $100 range, when you see the zero, think of ‘O’ for Obama because that’s why you are paying that extra amount of money,” Santorum said.
Santorum also challenged Romney’s assertion that his business experience is one of his strongest credentials, telling CNN’s Candy Crowley on “State of the Union” on Sunday that, “If Governor Romney thinks that he is the CEO of America and can run and manage the economy, he doesn’t understand what conservatives believe in.”
Romney’s campaign released an ad in Illinois on Friday, attacking Santorum for having “never run a business or a state.”
Santorum on Sunday said he had experience in the private sector as a lawyer, but argued that executive experience at a company is not necessary to be commander-in-chief.
“Running a business is not the same as being president of the United States,” he said.
Santorum also gave no indication that he has plans to drop out of the race should his campaign reach a point where the delegate math doesn’t add up in his favor.
“What I’m hearing is that we want a conservative nominee, that the establishment is trying to push a moderate like they did in 1976 against Ronald Reagan, like they did in 1996 with Bob Dole and what they did with John McCain,” Santorum said. “I think conservatives would like an opportunity to nominate a conservative, and that’s an opportunity.”
CNN’s Jim Acosta, John Helton, Ashley Killough, Rachel Streitfeld and Shannon Travis contributed to this report.