The Republican presidential race descended on President Barack Obama’s home turf yesterday, as a defiant Newt Gingrich arrived in Illinois following dual losses in Southern states that were supposed to be part of his base.
Gingrich’s arrival followed his second-place finishes in the March 13 Alabama and Mississippi primaries that have intensified questions about whether his candidacy is sustainable.
The former U.S. House speaker said he is “staying in this race” as he spoke to about 75 supporters in suburban Chicago in a room that could have easily held three times as many people. He repeated the exact same language a few hours later at a party dinner in another suburb.
Gingrich, 68, declined to answer any questions from reporters following his first event of the day held near O’Hare International Airport. He has won only two primaries so far, South Carolina and Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years.
Rick Santorum, who strengthened his status as Mitt Romney’s prime challenger in the Republican race by winning in Alabama and Mississippi, faces his next major challenge in the March 20 Illinois primary.
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, wants to drive Gingrich from the race to consolidate opposition to Romney, who easily leads in the hunt for delegates to the party’s national convention in August.
On a conference call with Illinois voters yesterday in-between fundraisers in the New York City area, Romney criticized Santorum’s economic credentials.
“I think you’ll find he’s an economic lightweight,” Romney said. “Not having ever spent any time in the private sector, he really doesn’t understand fundamentally what it takes to make this economy grow and thrive.”
Romney referred to skepticism he arouses among his party’s most conservative wing, saying, “I know the term ‘establishment’ frightens people.”
To allay such concerns, he pointed to endorsements he’s gotten from Republican leaders with strong conservative credentials, including Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and former Attorney General John Ashcroft.
‘The Guy’s OK’
Their backing should “give a pretty good indication that, ‘Perhaps the guy’s OK,’” Romney said of himself.
He brushed aside questions about his ability to appeal to Southern Republicans in an interview yesterday with Fox News.
“Some who are very conservative may not be yet in my camp, but they will be when I become the nominee,” he said.
Romney declined to weigh in on whether Gingrich should exit, saying such judgments were up to each candidate.
Santorum, 53, spent yesterday campaigning in Puerto Rico, where party caucuses this weekend will help determine the allocation of 23 delegates.
“If we keep winning races, eventually people are going to figure out that Governor Romney is not going to be the nominee,” Santorum told reporters yesterday in San Juan, according to the Associated Press.
He is scheduled to visit Illinois tomorrow and campaign in the state over the weekend, after stopping in Missouri where caucuses will also be held this weekend.
The arrival in Illinois of a Republican presidential campaign for something other than fundraising is unusual.
The state’s primary is typically late enough not to matter much. It last played a significant role on the Republican side in 1988, when then-Senator Bob Dole of Kansas was dealt a significant blow when he lost Illinois to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush.
That year also marked the last general election in which Illinois backed a Republican for president, so the party typically doesn’t make a play for the state.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and private equity executive, plans a brief campaign stop in Rosemont, Illinois, tomorrow morning before flying to Puerto Rico.
A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll released over the weekend showed Romney and Santorum locked in a tight race there. Romney was backed by 35 percent of likely voters and Santorum by 31 percent, within the 4-percentage-point margin of error.
The survey, taken before Santorum’s latest wins, showed 16 percent were undecided and 46 percent said they still might change their minds. It also revealed that Romney is doing better in the suburbs around Chicago, while Santorum holds the advantage outside the state’s largest metropolitan area.
Expectations are high for Romney in Illinois, considering his campaign cash advantage and his backing by many of the state’s top Republicans, including Senator Mark Kirk and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford.
Romney, 65, narrowly beat Santorum in two other Midwest primaries -- in Michigan and Ohio -- so a victory in Illinois would be significant for momentum in the race.
Illinois offers 69 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the party’s nomination. The state’s voters will directly elect 54 of those delegates.
As was the case in Ohio, Santorum failed to file a full slate of delegates, so he is only qualified for up to 44 of those chosen. Romney, Gingrich and Representative Ron Paul of Texas qualified for the full contingent.
Even amid state losses, Romney has continued to bank delegates in a process his aides say could drag on two more months. He has 495 delegates, including endorsements from Republican Party leaders who automatically attend and can vote for anyone, compared with 252 for Santorum and 131 for Gingrich, according to Associate Press estimates. Paul has 48.
The Illinois race may have a similar pattern to the one in Ohio, where Santorum did well in rural areas while Romney won urban and suburban regions. Unlike Ohio, where the larger cities are scattered, the majority of the population and Republican vote is centered in the Chicago metropolitan area.
While the area’s core is deeply Democratic -- home to Obama, his re-election team, and a father and son with the last name of Daley who ran Chicago for more than four decades combined -- many of the suburbs around the city lean Republican.
Illinois’ unemployment rate of 9.4 percent is higher than the national average of 8.3 percent, and higher than those in Ohio and Michigan. The state also has budget and pension shortfalls even after raising income and corporate taxes last year, and it has the nation’s lowest general-obligation bond rating, according to Moody’s Investors Service.
Gingrich’s future depends upon the intentions of his major donors, said Mike George, a Texas entrepreneur who has invested more than $200,000 in the former speaker’s presidential bid. George was referring to Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino billionaire who with his family has given at least $11 million to Winning Our Future, a political action committee backing him.
The key for the candidate is “how long will Sheldon continue writing these $10 million checks,” George said in an interview yesterday on Bloomberg Television. “It’s all in his hands.”
Adelson spokesman Ron Reese didn’t return calls or e-mails.
Rick Tyler, a senior adviser for Winning Our Future, said Adelson’s checks are less important under a new strategy of making it to the convention rather than winning state-by-state.
“The dynamics have changed, and all four candidates will arrive in Tampa on equal footing,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Nobody plans to go into the convention in third, but this is our new reality.”
Republicans and independents who lean that way are divided on whether Gingrich and Paul should drop out so that a two-person contest between Romney and Santorum could emerge, according to a Bloomberg National Poll published this week.
A political action committee backing Romney is already active on Illinois television, according to data from New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.
Restore Our Future, a super-PAC, has spent an estimated $700,830 to air ads 997 times on broadcast television in the state through March 13. Those figures don’t include advertising run in television markets on the state’s borders.
Gingrich’s arrival in the state yesterday competed with something that drew more attention: the last day of freedom for the state’s former governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who is heading to prison following his conviction of federal corruption charges.
Obama isn’t leaving his home state unattended during the final days of campaigning before the primary. He plans to attend two fundraisers tomorrow in Chicago for his re-election bid.