Romney poised for key Illinois win

Mitt Romney is poised for a major win in Illinois’s GOP primary, a crucial state for the candidate as he works to put to bed rumblings about a brokered convention.

A victory there on Tuesday, where 69 delegates are at stake, would move Romney closer to the 1,144 delegates the former Massachusetts governor needs to lock up the Republican nomination ahead of the August convention.

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His main rival, Rick Santorum, has downplayed expectations in the state — telling Fox News on Monday that Romney has an “overwhelming advantage.” The former Pennsylvania senator also failed to register a full slate of delegates there.

Santorum, however, is stoking talk of a brokered convention, saying the odds are “increasing.”

“If the other people stay in the race, it’s going to be hard for anyone to get to that magic number,” he said Monday in an interview on CBS’s “This Morning.” “We believe we get to the convention, the convention will nominate a conservative. The convention will not nominate an establishment moderate from Massachusetts.”

Romney led Santorum by 15 points in a survey of Illinois released Monday from the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling. But two polls out earlier this month showed him with single-digit leads over the former Pennsylvania senator. 

Romney is taking no chances: he’s brought in top surrogates including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

A surprise loss could do major damage to his campaign and renew Republican hand-wringing about the field of candidates they’ve put forward to challenge President Obama.

“Everything is very, very fluid,” said Demetra DeMonte, secretary of the Republican National Committee and the RNC’s Illinois committeewoman. “I don’t think people have made up their minds.”

Romney needs to win Illinois, a state with many wealthier, less religious and suburban Republican voters. 

His best chance of racking up votes is in suburban and exurban Chicago, home to a large number of fiscally conservative but socially moderate Republicans. But he will likely struggle in downstate Illinois, where Santorum has concentrated much of his time.

If Romney wins, his margin of victory will also matter, thanks to Santorum’s playing the expectations game.

“Of the things they’ve done poorly, expectations management has been at the top of that list,” said Republican strategist Matt Mackowiak, who has not endorsed in the primary. “I would not let a 15-point margin become the expectation.” 

Romney has changed his focus in recent days, talking less about the delegate math and focusing more on broad themes. Speaking at the University of Chicago on Monday, he used words from Milton Friedman, the school’s famous right-wing economist, to argue that government stands in the way of a strong economy.

“Freedom is becoming the victim of unbounded government appetite — and so is economic growth, job growth, and wage growth,” Romney said in the speech. “As government takes more and more, there is less and less incentive to take risk, to invest, to innovate, and to hire.”

He has also downplayed the delegate count, something he was stressing just weeks ago. 

“I know a lot of people will talk about delegates and strategies and math, and that’s all very interesting to the insiders,” he said Sunday morning on Fox News. “But I think the American people want to see someone who has the leadership, skill and experience to defeat the president, and a vision of conservatism that will get American back on track again.”

Santorum has sought on the stump to focus on jobs rather than social issues. On Sunday, though, two male Occupy Wall Street protestors interrupted a Santorum event in suburban Arlington Heights, Ill., with a kiss, leading to them being escorted out of the event. 

Al Salvi, Santorum’s Illinois campaign chairman, said the “protesters overplayed their hand and looked kind of bad,” and said the moment had helped Santorum’s campaign. But he said after the event he’d encouraged Santorum to focus more on rural and small-town Illinois rather than the Chicago suburbs.

“He was asking me if he should schedule one more Chicago-area visit, and I told him, ‘Don’t, man. You came, you saw, you conquered,’ ” said Salvi. “Don’t blow a good thing — keep solidifying our support downstate,” where he predicted Santorum would “clean up.”

Santorum didn’t sink major resources in the state. His campaign and a super-PAC supporting him spent about half a million dollars there, compared to about $3.5 million spent by Romney and his super-PAC. 

The former senator also made what Salvi conceded was a major tactical error, spending days campaigning in Puerto Rico rather than focusing on Illinois.

Santorum finished with just 8 percent of the vote in Sunday’s contest, compared to Romney’s 83 percent, and won no delegates in Puerto Rico.

“In hindsight, he should not have gone to Puerto Rico,” Salvi told The Hill. “It turned out to be a mistake.”

Romney has planned a victory rally in Illinois, a sign of confidence, while Santorum will spend election night in Gettysburg, Pa. The April 24 primary in Pennsylvania is an absolute must-win for Santorum, whose viability in his home state has been in question ever since he lost reelection to the Senate there by 18 points in 2006.