Mitt Romney wins Illinois GOP primary

Mitt Romney got a much-needed victory Tuesday night in Illinois, giving his presidential campaign a boost and strengthening the argument that he is the inevitable GOP nominee.

Rick Santorum tried to downplay expectations in the days leading up to the vote, but since the Iowa caucuses, the former Pennsylvania senator has yet to take out Romney in a state where they are both considered competitive.

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With 99 percent of the precincts reporting, Romney had 47 percent of the vote to Santorum’s 35 percent. Ron Paul was in third with 9 percent and Newt Gingrich brought up the rear with 8 percent.

CNN and Fox News projected Romney as the winner based on exit polling and early results about 40 minutes after the polls closed.

Romney will walk away with the majority of the state’s 69 delegates. Santorum failed to file a full slate of delegates in four of Illinois’s congressional districts, which means he ceded an advantage to Romney before voting even began.

Tonight we thank the people of Illinois for their vote and for this extraordinary victory, Romney said in Schaumburg, Ill. Elections are about choices, and today, hundreds of thousands of people in Illinois have joined millions of people across the country to join our cause.

It is the first state the former Massachusetts governor has won in two weeks — he won the territory of Puerto Rico on Sunday — but the next contest favors Santorum, his main rival for the nomination.

Santorum cleaned up with self-identified rural voters in Illinois, according to a CNN exit poll, taking 49 percent to just 29 percent for Romney. Santorum also did best with voters who earn less than $50,000 annually, while Romney took every other income bracket, continuing a long trend of performing better with wealthier voters.

Romney triumphed among voters who said they had made up their minds earlier in March or in previous months. Santorum took a plurality of votes among those who said they had made up their minds in the past few days, indicating that Santorum’s recent efforts produced some momentum.

Two-thirds of voters said it was less important to them that the primary race end soon than that their favored candidate should emerge victorious.

More voters said they were looking for a candidate who could defeat President Obama than any other quality — Romney took 71 percent of those voters.

Early results showed Romney easily winning Cook County — which contains Chicago — and other counties near the city, where Romney’s message resonated clearly with the area’s socially centrist, business-oriented voters. As expected, Santorum captured much of downstate Illinois, particularly the rural counties near the periphery of the state.

But Romney performed surprisingly well in the center of the state, where Santorum was considered to have an advantage. Romney led in early results in a large, contiguous area including Peoria, Fulton and Macon counties.

Despite his edge in Illinois, Romney took no chances in the state: He’s been stumping there since Friday and brought in top-level GOP surrogates including New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Arizona Sen. John McCain. He and the super-PAC supporting him combined to spend approximately $3.5 million in the state, seven times the total Santorum and his allies spent.

Romney spent election night in suburban Chicago, a show of confidence that he was going to win the state — he skipped speaking altogether after Mississippi’s and Alabama’s primaries, which he lost.

Santorum downplayed expectations, repeatedly describing himself as the underdog in the state and flying to his home state of Pennsylvania, which will vote April 24, before polls had closed in Illinois.

Neither Gingrich nor Paul spent a lot of time in the Land of Lincoln.

The GOP presidential race now moves to Louisiana, which will hold its primary Saturday. Romney has struggled in the Deep South, and a poll released by the Republican Magellan Strategies on Monday had Santorum leading Romney by 13 points in the state.

Romney has not announced any planned campaign stops in Louisiana, and instead will stump outside Baltimore on Wednesday — Maryland is one of the next states to vote, on April 3. Washington, D.C., also holds its contest that day, but Santorum did not make the ballot.

While Romney has de-emphasized Louisiana, he’s still hoping for delegates there, and his super-PAC has spent close to $600,000 in the state on direct-mail and television ads.

The former Massachusetts governor has not won any Southern state except Florida, whose voting demographic differs from that of its neighbors.

Gingrich has made a play for Louisiana, but polls show him in third. But it’s possible the former House Speaker could move up to second, which is where he placed in the last two Southern contests.

With Romney unlikely to campaign hard in Louisiana and Santorum facing long odds in Maryland, which is dominated by centrists and suburbs, Wisconsin, also an April 3 state, is likely to be the next hotly contested battleground between the two.

Two Wisconsin polls conducted in late February showed Santorum with large double-digit leads, although that was at the peak of his strength nationally. The state is in some ways similar to Michigan, with large numbers of populist, religious Catholic and Protestant voters in the north and west of the state and a number of economics-focused suburban voters around Milwaukee.

“I believe it can be a competitive state,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Charles Franklin, who conducted one of the late February polls.

After the April 3 contest, the candidates get a bit of a break. The next round of voting is April 24, when several Northeastern states hold their contests.

— This story was updated at 7:56 a.m.

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