Mitt Romney won the Republican presidential primary election in Illinois, scoring a victory in a big Midwestern state and dealing a blow to challenger Rick Santorum.
With 46 percent of precincts reporting, Romney led with 50 percent to 32 percent for Santorum, according to the Associated Press. They were followed by U.S. Representative Ron Paul of Texas with 9 percent and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia with 8 percent.
“What a night,” Romney told supporters in Schaumburg, Illinois. “Elections are about choices,” and, after three years of President Barack Obama’s administration, “we’ve had enough.”
“Our economic freedom will be on the ballot,” in the general election in November, Romney said.
Romney’s victory in a state with the type of large suburban population important in general elections helps to restore the air of inevitability that had been threatened by Santorum’s victories this month in states including Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee.
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” in a faceoff with Obama, said Dan Curry, a Chicago-based Republican strategist, before the race was called.
More than seven in 10 voters who said the most important quality in a candidate is the ability to defeat Obama backed Romney, according to exit polls.
Romney won the plurality of independent voters, as well as men and women voters and those who said they support the Tea Party.
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor and second-time presidential hopeful, before today had 522 delegates out of the 1,144 needed for the nomination, according to the Associated Press. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, had 253, followed by Gingrich with 135 and Paul with 50, according to AP’s count.
The Illinois contest awards 54 delegates. Although Santorum’s campaign failed to qualify for 10 of the delegates up for grabs, he can still collect some based on the vote in each congressional district.
Santorum, who has shown strength in the South, is pushing for a win in Louisiana’s March 24 primary. In April, the Republican race heads to Wisconsin, Maryland, New York and Pennsylvania, among other states.
Hogan Gidley, Santorum’s communications director, played down the importance of the Illinois primary, telling reporters on a conference call earlier today that his candidate’s campaign is “focused on the long haul.”
He also disputed delegate count estimates by the 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 with the campaign, said the Santorum count showed him with 311 delegates, compared with 435 for Romney.
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.
Romney, 65, planned to campaign tomorrow in Maryland. Santorum, 53, returned today to his home state of Pennsylvania and heads tomorrow to Louisiana.
Gingrich campaigned in Louisiana today. His strategy of doing well in the South suffered when he lost the March 13 Alabama and Mississippi primaries to Santorum.
Paul is in Burbank, California, appearing on NBC’s “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Romney’s campaign made an all-out effort to win Illinois, spending heavily and investing much of the candidate’s time. It also deployed its top surrogate, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, to campaign for Romney in Republican suburban strongholds.
Such tactics were unusual for Illinois, since the state typically attracts candidate visits only for fundraising.
Romney and his allies financed an onslaught of advertising in Illinois to boost his bid, spending more than $3 million on commercials 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.
Illinois last played a significant role on the Republican side in 1988, when then-Senator Bob Dole of Kansas was dealt a significant blow by losing 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.
In this year’s general election, it’s unlikely the Republican nominee will return to the Illinois, Obama’s home state, for much beyond fundraising visits.