Mitt Romney is seeking a win in today’s Illinois Republican primary to restore the air of inevitability that once surrounded his presidential candidacy, as his closest rival Rick Santorum fights to stay viable with a strong showing.
The stakes are high for both men. Romney, leading in public polls in the state, seeks to prove strength in politically competitive suburbs and consolidate Republican support. Santorum is trying to deny him that chance by demonstrating power in conservative bastions in southern Illinois.
Illinois (BEESIL) is “a suburban powerhouse, and if Romney does well in the suburbs here, I think it will indicate to people across the country that he has the potential in the fall to do well in the key parts of the battleground states, where Obama did well in 2008, and where Republicans have to recapture some of the ground we lost last time,” said Dan Curry, a Chicago- based party strategist.
“If Romney is able to pull off a big suburban margin and hold down Santorum’s margin downstate, I think it will send a strong signal across the country that this race is inching closer to being over,” Curry added.
Still, the outcome of today’s balloting -- which begins at 6 a.m. Central time and awards 54 out of the 1,144 delegates needed for the Republican nomination -- is unlikely on its own to end the race. Santorum, who failed to qualify for 10 of the delegates up for grabs today, can still collect some even if he loses the popular vote, keeping his candidacy alive as he pushes for a win in Louisiana, next to vote on March 24.
Romney, the former Massachusetts (BEESMA) governor and second-time presidential hopeful, has 521 delegates to 253 for Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, according to the Associated Press. Former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia trails with 136 and Texas Congressman Ron Paul has 50, according to AP’s count.
“Romney does need to win the primary in terms of just trying to start to put to bed some of the questions about can he appeal to a broad enough base of the party,” said Jamie Chandler, a political scientist at Hunter College in New York City. “But it’s not going to be resolved by any stretch of the imagination.”
Romney campaign officials are upbeat, with Dan Rutherford, the Illinois treasurer who is chairman of Romney’s Illinois campaign, saying he is “cautiously optimistic” for a win.
“It’s going to be a tight race” in Illinois, Santorum told reporters yesterday in Dixon. “I’ve learned not to underestimate the folks out here, how hard they are working, and the energy and enthusiasm that’s built around a positive message, as opposed to one that’s just out there hammering away and being negative.”
In a nod to the prospect the race will continue after Illinois, Romney, 65, planned to campaign tomorrow in Maryland - - which holds its primary April 3 -- after an anticipated election-night victory party in the Chicago suburb of Schaumberg. Santorum, 53, was returning today to his home-state of Pennsylvania before heading to campaign events in Louisiana.
In the final day before the voting, Romney branded Santorum an “economic lightweight” unsuited to defeating President Barack Obama, and Santorum painted Romney as a doomed candidate who didn’t represent the party’s core principles.
Romney, eager to pivot to attacking Obama, visited the University of Chicago, where the president once taught law, to denounce his economic record. He said the administration has engaged in an “assault on our economic freedom” that harmed the U.S. economy, hindered its recovery and might cause lasting damage.
Of Santorum, Romney said: “We’re not going to be successful in replacing an economic lightweight with another economic lightweight.” Speaking to voters yesterday in Springfield, Illinois, he added, “We’re going to have to replace him with someone who knows how to run this economy.”
Santorum sought to link himself with Ronald Reagan. He implored voters at a rally in Dixon, the 40th U.S. president’s boyhood home, not to make the mistake it did in 1976 when Republicans pressured Reagan to exit the race against Gerald Ford, who went on to lose to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
Reagan “was considered too conservative, someone who was unelectable because we needed to appeal to moderates; we needed to appeal to Democrats,” Santorum said.
He also disputed Romney’s assertion that the central issues in the election are the economy and jobs, telling voters in Moline that, while he would restore manufacturing jobs, the race was about the broader issue of “freedom” and did not “hinge” on unemployment or growth rates.
“I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be; it doesn’t matter to me,” Santorum said in a comment the Romney campaign quickly clipped and posted on its YouTube site.