March 20 (Bloomberg) -- Mitt Romney sought a win in today’s Illinois primary to restore the air of inevitability that once surrounded his quest for the Republican presidential nomination, as his closest rival Rick Santorum tried to stay viable with a strong showing.
As polls closed, no immediate victory projections were made by television networks.
The stakes are high for both men. Romney, leading in public polls in the state, aims to prove strength in politically competitive suburbs that will be crucial in running against President Barack Obama and to consolidate Republican support. Santorum is trying to deny him that chance by demonstrating power in conservative bastions in southern Illinois.
Illinois 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 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 governor and second-time presidential hopeful, has 522 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 135 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 raised money at a private lunch today, then held a Google+ hangout with supporters at Google’s Chicago headquarters, where he also toured the company’s primary color-infused offices and greeted employees at their desks.
He said during the hangout that he had begun his day washing a shirt in a hotel room sink and ironing it dry, after realizing he had exhausted his supply of clean shirts suitable for a fundraiser.
Asked by a reporter during his visit whether he expected to win in Illinois, Romney replied, “Sure hope so.”
Romney campaign officials are upbeat, with Dan Rutherford, the Illinois treasurer who is heads the candidate’s Illinois campaign, saying he is “cautiously optimistic” for a win.
Hogan Gidley, Santorum’s communications director, played down the importance of the Illinois vote, telling reporters on a conference call today that the former senator’s campaign is “focused on the long haul.”
The campaign also sought to plant seeds of doubt that Romney can win 1,144 delegates. Gidley said Romney’s campaign hasn’t been “truthful” about the delegate race, and disputed the estimates by AP and other news organizations.
These estimates falsely assume that delegates in some of states that have voted will fall in line with the popular vote when county and state conventions are later held to pick delegates for the national convention in August, Gidley said.
John Brabender, a senior strategist, said the Santorum campaign count shows Romney has won 435 delegates so far, compared to 311 for Santorum.
Brabender said states that vote in late May, including Arkansas and Kentucky, promise to be especially strong for Santorum. “We view May as a very favorable month for Rick Santorum,” he said.
“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.”
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 Schaumburg. Santorum, 53, was returning today to his home-state of Pennsylvania before heading to campaign events in Louisiana.
Campaigning today in Louisiana is Gingrich, whose nomination bid was dealt a blow when he lost March 13 primaries in Alabama and Mississippi to Santorum. Paul is in Burbank, California, appearing on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
In yesterday’s campaign in Illinois, Romney branded Santorum an “economic lightweight” unsuited to defeating Obama and Santorum painted Romney as a doomed candidate who didn’t represent core Republican principles.
Romney, eager to pivot to attacking Obama, visited the University of Chicago, where the president once taught law, to denounce the administration’s economic record. He said Obama 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.”
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 he said the party 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.
Economy and Jobs
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 didn’t “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.
“One of the people who’s running also for the Republican nomination today said that he doesn’t care about the unemployment rate; that doesn’t bother him,” Romney said at a rally at Bradley University in Peoria. “I do care about the unemployment rate. It does bother me. I want to put people back to work.”
Santorum solidified his status as Romney’s main challenger with his wins in Alabama and Mississippi.
In Midwest contests, Santorum won the Iowa caucuses that kicked off the nomination race and held Romney to a 3 percentage point victory in Michigan -- the front-runner’s native state -- and a 1 percentage point win in Ohio.
Romney and his allies have financed an onslaught of advertising in Illinois to boost his bid, spending more than $3 million on advertisements in and around the state as of yesterday, compared with $167,090 spent by Santorum and his backers over the same period, according to New York-based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks the advertising.
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