PEORIA, Illinois -- Bidding for each delegate in an Illinois primary whose outcome is hardly assured, Mitt Romney is betting his message of economic proficiency will resonate with Republican voters more than Rick Santorum’s sharply honed conservatism.
Fifty-four delegates are at stake Tuesday in a state that was not only home to President Barack Obama but is also one of the last major battlegrounds before a three-week lull in April.
In the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, homemaker Catherine Lopez cast her vote to Romney, saying he’s most capable of defeating Obama.
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“OK, maybe he’s not charismatic,” Lopez said. “But we’ve had enough charisma with Obama. We need competence.”
In central Illinois, Santorum claimed the vote of St. Joseph resident Richard Zellers, who also was looking for the best candidate “to get President Obama out.” The retired Kraft foods worker added that “if a frog was running against Obama,” he’d vote for the frog.
While Romney clearly has the numbers on his side, the Santorum campaign argued Tuesday that the race for delegates is closer than many people think.
Their count, which cuts back on Romney’s delegate, assumes that the Republican National Committee at the convention this summer will force Florida and Arizona to allocate its delegates on a proportional basis instead of winner-take-all as the state GOP decided. Romney won both states.
Romney’s confidence was on display Monday, while Santorum was forced on the defensive for first declaring that the economy was not a top issue in the campaign and then stating that “the campaign doesn’t hinge on unemployment rates.”
By day’s end, Santorum had conceded that the economy and unemployment were important but said they were symptoms of what he described as broader ills: government intrusion and eroding freedom.
Newt Gingrich, for his part, found himself battling perceptions that his campaign is out of gas—and money.
In an interview on FOX News Radio, Gingrich argued that Ronald Reagan had the same challenge in 1976 and 1980.
“I can’t go to Wall Street like Romney and raise $3 million in one night from the guys that got bailed out by the taxpayers,” Gingrich said.
Romney kept his focus on the president, denouncing Obama’s economic policies in a speech at the very university where the president once taught constitutional law.
Santorum hit hard at Romney, who leads the Republican field in delegates and whose nomination, barring a political disaster, seems more and more assured as the contest results mount. Santorum cloaked himself in the mantle of Reagan and argued that health care, not the economy, is the predominant issue of the campaign.
Santorum and Romney crisscrossed the state Monday, coming within mere hours of each other in Peoria.
Tuesday’s primary comes on the heels of Romney’s overwhelming victory Sunday in Puerto Rico, a territory Santorum courted at the expense of spending time in Illinois. Though Illinois is expected to be far closer than Puerto Rico, recent polls indicate Romney may be pulling away.
Even if he should lose the popular vote, Romney is poised to win the delegate battle. Santorum cannot win at least 10 of the state’s 54 delegates available Tuesday because his campaign didn’t file the necessary paperwork.
Romney planned to hold an election-night party Tuesday in Schaumburg, Ill.
Santorum was leaving the state to deliver an evening speech about Abraham Lincoln in Gettysburg, Pa. Last week in Chicago, Obama said he hoped the Republican candidates would “take a little time to reflect” on Lincoln while campaigning in Illinois.
After Tuesday, the contest moves to Louisiana, in a part of the country where Romney has had trouble breaking through. Louisiana has 46 delegates to the Republican National Convention, but only 20 delegates are at stake in Saturday’s primary. An additional 23 delegates will be selected at the party’s state convention in June, and the remaining 3 are the automatic RNC delegates.