Updated 03/07/12 – 6:03 p.m.

CHICAGO (CBS) — Political experts differ a bit on whether Illinois’ Republican Primary is gaining in importance in the party’s struggle to find a Presidential nominee.

As WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports, some political experts say the prolonged GOP contest between frontrunners Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum means the Illinois primary may be more important.

For the first time since 1988, Illinois will be “in play” in the bid for the GOP nomination for president.

As CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley reports, Romney scored several victories on “Super Tuesday,” but still hasn’t clinched the Republican nomination, making Illinois’ 54 delegates a tempting prize on March 20.

LISTEN: WBBM Newsradio Political Editor Craig Dellimore reports

Santorum’s Illinois campaign chairman, Al Salvi, said, “This is really exciting. I can’t remember Illinois ever really being in play.”

Both Salvi and Santorum attended Mundelein’s Carmel High School in the 1970’s, but they really didn’t know each other until Santorum campaigned for Salvi in his unsuccessful 1996 bid for the U.S. Senate.

“Illinois has quite a few delegates up for grabs, and Rick Santorum has proven he’s able to do well in some of the Rust Belt states,” Salvi said. “I think he should do well in Illinois.”

Romney’s narrow Ohio victory has left the door open for challengers to continue on.

University of Illinois at Springfield political science professor emeritus Kent Redfield said if Santorum comes into Illinois having scored a few victories, Romney could need a victory to regain the momentum.

“It will still be about momentum and inevitability, and so I think Illinois probably is going to matter, and one of them is going to come into Illinois – either Santorum or Romney – really needing to do well,” Redfield said.

Northwestern University political science professor emeritus Kenneth Janda agrees the Republican Party is taking longer than it wants to rally behind a single candidate to challenge President Barack Obama in November, but feels Illinois will have an incremental effect on the race, not a pivotal one.

“We’re going to be adding to the increment of delegate – presumably for Romney – or to the race and delegate counts between Romney and, presumably, Santorum,” he said.

Romney won the primaries in Ohio, Virginia, Vermont and his native Massachusetts and the caucuses in Alaska and Idaho on Super Tuesday, but he didn’t deal a knockout blow to Santorum, who won in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee.

Romney holds a healthy lead in the delegate count, but is still far from the more than 1,100 delegates needed to secure the GOP nomination and, at best, could not secure the nomination until May or June, even if he practically sweeps the remaining primaries.

While Santorum has a steeper hill to climb in the fight for the GOP nomination, there are still enough delegates in play that all of the Republican candidates are still in the hunt, mathematically.

Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady said Romney hasn’t been able to seal the deal, despite being the frontrunner from the start, because, “it’s a different system this time.”

“He’s done very well in the last four or five races,” Brady added. “He’s won five straight. He’s well ahead in the national polls. He’s well ahead in fund raising, and well ahead in delegates.”

A pro-Romney super PAC is already attacking Santorum in Chicago TV ads, calling him “the ultimate Washington insider,” while saying Romney has created thousands of jobs.

The anti-Santorum ad is part of a $180,000 media purchase by a pro-Romney super PAC. It’s just start of an expected torrent of political TV ads that could flood the airwaves in the next two weeks leading up to the Illinois primary.

In a conference call Wednesday, the Obama campaign said the GOP’s nasty attacks on each other are helping the president.

Senior strategist David Axelrod said, “While they’re destroying each other, we’re building a campaign, nationally, that is based on a positive vision.”

But many republicans see benefits in the extended primary campaign.

“It’s making our candidates better,” Salvi said. “Whoever ends up on top is going to be more prepared.”

CBS 2 has been told Romney will be in Illinois for two days; Santorum will visit for three days. That’s a measure of just how badly they want to capture those Illinois GOP delegates.

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