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In Illinois, Candidates Make A Final Delegate Dash

Mitt Romney speaks at the University of Chicago on Monday.
Steven Senne
Mitt Romney speaks at the University of Chicago on Monday.

It's another furious dash to the finish line as delegate-rich Illinois holds its Republican presidential primary Tuesday.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is looking to increase his delegate lead. And he's still searching for that decisive win over his main rival, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

While polls show Romney with a slight lead in Illinois, it's far from a sure thing. Sensing an opportunity to put some distance between himself and Santorum, Romney is doubling down in Illinois, where 54 of the state's 69 delegates are at stake.

Romney is staying in the state through Tuesday's vote and added more stops than originally planned. In campaigning Sunday and Monday, Romney focused his attack on President Obama while touting his own business acumen.

"You see if you're in business, you have no choice but to be a fiscal conservative," Romney told an overflowing crowd at a town hall meeting in the Chicago suburb of Vernon Hills. "If you spend more money than you take in, you go broke. You know, I learned that for 25 years, all right, so I understand how it works."

And Romney poked fun at the massive state budget deficit in the president's home state.

Obama "was a legislator in Illinois, where I understand if you don't spend more money than you take in, you don't get re-elected, right?" Romney said.

He also took swipes at both Obama and his GOP rivals, saying, "I didn't learn about the economy in a subcommittee of Congress. I learned about the economy on the streets of American business, in the free marketplace and trading around the world," before adding, "You can't replace an economy lightweight with another economy lightweight."

"We were undecided until today and I would say that after hearing Gov. Romney today, our decision has been made that, yeah, he will get our vote," said Connie Gustafson, 28, who attended a Romney rally in Rockford on Sunday with her husband, Carl.

But some Illinois Republican primary voters aren't buying Romney's message that he's better tested than the others in the real-world economy.

"I would like to put somebody in office who's had to work for a living," said Karen Mack, 45, of Wheaton. "The idea that politicians are wealthy and have lost touch with middle class and what the real issues are is disheartening."

In the rest of Illinois, beyond Chicago and its suburbs, where Republican primary voters tend to be more socially conservative, many still question Romney's conservative credentials.

in Dixon, the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, Aaron Wiles turned out to hear Santorum speak next to a statue of the 40th president.

"I'm looking for somebody who I think is the true conservative in the race and I have serious hesitations with Mitt Romney's front-runner status," said Wiles. "And I do believe that Rick [Santorum] has been the conservative from Day 1 ever since he's been in the Senate."

And that's the message Santorum himself tried to hammer home to Illinois voters.

"Let's just be brutally honest about it: There's one candidate in this race who can never make this race about freedom, because he simply abandoned freedom when he was governor of Massachusetts and he abandoned it when he promoted Obamacare in 2009," said Santorum.

Santorum has been drawing huge crowds and is hoping strong turnout downstate can offset the more moderate Chicago suburbs.

"The wheels on the Romney bike are a little wobbly now," said Matt Streb, a political scientist at Northern Illinois University. "I think if he loses Illinois, one of them probably falls off."

While Illinois is a usually a blue state in general elections, "The Republican Party is not nearly as moderate in Illinois as I think most people make it out to be," Streb said, adding that GOP primary voters have been voting more conservative in recent years. That could bode well for Santorum.

As for Romney, a decisive win in a large state such as Illinois would certainly go a long way toward helping Romney get closer to the nomination, said Streb, but it's not critical.

"We are getting to the point though, where kind of momentum becomes less important and, now, delegate count does matter," said Streb.

And that's where Santorum could come up short in Illinois. Even if he is able to win the popular vote, Santorum was unable to field full slates of delegates in every Illinois congressional district.

The Chicago Tribune explained:

"Romney, [Newt] Gingrich and [Ron] Paul fielded full slates of 54 delegates in the state's 18 congressional districts. Santorum failed to file delegates in four districts, including the new 5th District that takes in eastern DuPage County and the 13th District that features several Republican-leaning areas in central Illinois."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Schaper is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk, based in Chicago, primarily covering transportation and infrastructure, as well as breaking news in Chicago and the Midwest.