Finally a good night for Mitt Romney that will assist his narrative.

The race isn’t over, but Mitt Romney’s “perception problem” may be on the road to recovery.

The nagging doubt that haunted the Romney campaign for months, that he just couldn’t close the deal on the nomination is finally starting to have less creditability.

After Illinois, Romney can breathe easier. The good news: It’s almost impossible to take away Romney’s delegate lead. The bad news for Romney: He still may not wrap up the nomination for months, and has a major enthusiasm problem going up an incumbent president with a campaign war chest Romney will not be able to compete with.

Let’s take the victory at hand. With his double-digit victory in Illinois, Romney can legitimately argue he won convincingly. He didn’t reach 50 percent of the vote, to clearly beat the expectations game, but he did carry Chicago, and its surrounding suburbs big. He traditionally wins in urban areas and affluent suburbs. More importantly, Romney also did well among self-identified conservatives, and picked up the largest share of delegates from the state. Bottom line: Santorum slipped further behind Romney in the all-important delegate count.

“What a night. Thank you Illinois. What a night. Wow!” Romney said to supporters at his victory party.

“Each day, we move closer — not just to victory, but to a better America.”

Santorum, who is struggling to overcome self-imposed political wounds from Puerto Rico to Illinois, in his home state of Pennsylvania told a rally that he did well.

“If you look at what’s going to happen tonight, we’re going to win Downstate, we’re going to win central Illinois, we’re going to win western Illinois,” he said. “We won the areas that conservatives and Republicans populate.”

“Saddle up, like Reagan did in the cowboy movies.” Santorum urged his backers.

After his speech, Santorum chalked up his loss in Illinois to Romney’s sizable financial advantage, telling CNN he could not afford to match his rival’s ad offensive on the state’s expensive airwaves.

“When you get outspent 21-1 in Chicago, it’s pretty tough,” Santorum said to CNN. “I don’t think he’s going to be able to do 21-1 in many places,” Santorum added.

Of course Illinois will go to Obama in the fall, but it is rather ironic that of all the states, Illinois helped give Romney credentials he has badly been seeking the entire campaign.

Romney focused almost exclusively on President Obama, never mentioning his Republican rivals by name. Romney framed the general election as a “defining decision” for the American People, and as one with a simple message for President Obama. “This election will be about principle… It’s time to say this word: enough.”

To say Romney is now an unstoppable train heading towards the nomination would be a stretch. After all, the subject here is Mitt Romney where during this campaign he often takes one step forward, and two steps backward. History has shown we must hedge our bet with him. Illinois proved Romney is in “all likelihood” the eventual Republican nominee for President. The only question now is when and how much damage did Republicans do in this circular firing squad for the fall campaign.

For once it’s not Romney on the defensive, but rather Santorum. Come Saturday night, the narrative could very well return to “Romney can’t win in the south.” Perhaps Santorum will do better this weekend in upcoming Louisiana, (Much friendlier territory for Santorum with evangelicals) but the window of opportunity is closing. Another big test. Can Romney beat Santorum in Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania on April 24?

Let’s assume Romney has the nomination; he still has plenty of headaches.

Enthusiasm questions from the base will not go away, are Republican voters passionate for him? Will they ever be excited for Romney or might they sit out the election? … Another problem, as the moderate Romney tries to move back towards the middle to compete in battleground states and for independent voters, how does he get away from the “far right” hole he has deeply dug for himself?

President Obama may — and it’s emphasized “may” — turn out the conservative base, but how will Romney close the gender gap, and appeal to Latino voters? How will Romney be able to run from the tag of do-anything, say-anything to get elected?

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