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Romney Illinois Drive Brands Santorum an Economic Rookie

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, pressing for a victory in tomorrow’s Illinois primary, is branding both President Barack Obama and primary rival Rick Santorum as economic lightweights.

Campaigning in Obama’s home state, where recent polls show Romney with an edge in his party’s contest, the former Massachusetts governor prepared to attack Obama’s economic record in a midday speech, while dismissing Santorum as similarly unfit to replace the current White House occupant.

“I’m not an economic lightweight -- President Obama is,” Romney told voters feasting on over-sized pancakes and eggs at Charlie Parker’s Diner in Springfield, Illinois.

“We’re not going to be successful in replacing an economic lightweight with another economic lightweight,” he added, referring to Santorum. “We’re going to have to replace him with someone who knows how to run this economy.”

Romney, 65, is seeking an Illinois win to bolster his front-runner status in the Republican contest. Recent public polls have given him the advantage over Santorum, his closest rival. Romney plans a speech on “economic freedom” today at the University of Chicago, and previewed a tough critique of the president at the school where Obama once taught law.

‘Big’ Government

“What we’ve found over the last three years is a president who continues to push government deeper and deeper into our lives, stripping us of our personal and economic freedom, and at the same time building a government that’s so big, it’s crushing enterprises,” Romney said.

In a statement in advance of Romney’s speech, James Kvaal, the Obama campaign’s policy director, criticized Romney’s term as Massachusetts governor from 2003 to 2007, saying he presided over losses of 40,000 manufacturing jobs and increases in state government spending and the number of state employees.

“His record of losing jobs and leaving the middle class behind is turning off the very voters he’d need in November if he becomes the Republican nominee,” Kvaal said.

Santorum, speaking to voters this morning in Rockford, Illinois, scoffed at Romney’s characterization of him.

“I heard Governor Romney here called me an economic lightweight because I wasn’t a Wall Street financier like he was,” the former Pennsylvania senator said. “Do you really believe that this country wants to elect a Wall Street financier as the president of the United States?” Santorum said his rival “bailed out” banks “at the expense of America.”

‘Weak’ Candidate

Santorum is also working to draw parallels between his Republican opponent and Obama, calling Romney a “weak” candidate whose policies mirror the president’s on such issues as health-care mandates and federal bailouts.

“I feel like I am doing a training run for the general election,” Santorum, 53, said on ABC’s “This Week” program. “The same issues I’m out there campaigning on against Governor Romney are the same issues I’m going to campaign against Barack Obama on.”

In a possible sign he doesn’t expect to carry Illinois, Santorum scheduled his primary-night party in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as he looks toward the next primary March 24 in Louisiana for a chance to regain momentum and collect delegates.

Latino Votes

Romney hailed his latest victory in Puerto Rico -- by a margin wide enough to claim all of its 20 delegates for the party’s nominating convention -- during a stop in Vernon Hills, Illinois, where he suggested it shows that he can appeal to a constituency central to defeating Obama in November.

“I intend to become the nominee, and I intend to get Latino voters to vote for a Republican, and take back the White House,” Romney said yesterday.

Ann Romney, also appearing at the town-hall meeting, called for Republicans to unite behind her husband.

“We need to send a message that it’s time to coalesce,” she said. “It’s time for us to get behind one candidate and get the job done, so we can move on to the next challenge, bringing us one step closer to defeating Barack Obama.”

Santorum has portrayed Romney as a flawed candidate unable to appeal to core Republicans. He “hasn’t been able to close the deal and even come close to closing the deal,” Santorum said yesterday. “We can’t nominate such a weak candidate.”

Romney, who sought the Republican presidential nomination four years ago, brushed aside concerns that his rivals staying in the race might deny him the chance to amass the 1,144 delegates needed to secure the nomination.

Romney’s Bet

“I can’t tell you exactly how the process is going to work, but I bet I’m going to become the nominee,” Romney said on “Fox News Sunday.” “I sure hope I’m going to become the nominee, and if I am, I’m going to be a strong nominee.”

Romney has 523 delegates to Santorum’s 253, according to the latest projection by the Associated Press. Gingrich trails with 136 delegates, while U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas has collected 50.

Romney’s “going to do well here -- I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Dan Rutherford, the Illinois treasurer who is chairman of Romney’s campaign in the state. “It adds to the whole psychology, the whole momentum, and those kinds of things -- the fundraising,” in addition to Romney’s delegate count.

Romney’s campaign cash advantage and backing by many top Republicans in Illinois, including Rutherford and Senator Mark Kirk, lend him an edge. Following the close margins by which Romney defeated Santorum in Michigan and Ohio, a victory in Illinois would be significant for momentum in the race.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julie Hirschfeld Davis in Springfield, Illinois at 1890 or jdavis159@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net

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