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WASHINGTON — Rick Santorum’s campaign has begun to argue forcefully that Mitt Romney will fail to win the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the Republican nomination for president, leaving the decision to a wide-open national convention in Tampa, Fla., this summer.

The argument suggests that Santorum’s strategists have all but given up on the idea that their own candidate can reach that magic number himself. A count by The Associated Press found that Romney has already collected 454 delegates, more than twice the 217 that have pledged to support Santorum.

But Santorum and his advisers believe that he — along with Newt Gingrich and Rep. Ron Paul — can effectively block Romney’s march to the nomination over the next three months. If that happens, they argue, Republicans will gather for their convention with no certain winner — and with Romney at a disadvantage.

Aides to Santorum predicted that convention delegates — including a majority of the so-called “superdelegates” — would throw their weight behind Santorum once Romney failed to lock up the nomination.

“When we go to this convention, if that’s where we end up, it’s a conservative party,” Santorum said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show. “If an opportunity provides itself at an open convention, they are not going to nominate a moderate Massachusetts governor.”

Romney’s advisers dismiss the idea of a contested convention and say he is on track to accumulate a majority of the 2,286 total delegates. They argue that Romney has won more than 50 percent of the delegates in the contests to date.