(Evan Vucci / Associated…)
Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney's campaign has long considered Illinois to be in its win column, but a new Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll shows the candidate has some work to do to make that a reality.
The survey found Romney slightly ahead of Rick Santorum, 35% to 31% — within the poll's 4-percentage-point margin of error. Trailing far behind were Newt Gingrich with 12% and Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 7%. Another 16% were undecided.
There's room for movement ahead of Illinois' March 20 primary, however. Fully 46% of voters said they could still change their minds before the election.
The survey of 600 confirmed registered voters likely to vote in the Illinois Republican primary was conducted Wednesday through Friday, prior to Santorum winning Kansas' GOP caucuses.
Illinois was expected to be a firewall for Romney after Tuesday primaries in Alabama and Mississippi, a pair of Southern states where he has lowered expectations. There are typically more moderate GOP voters in Chicago's suburbs, and Romney's campaign has some operational depth in the area.
And the poll showed Romney is doing well in the suburbs. In Cook County, he leads Santorum 39% to 30%. In the more heavily Republican counties, Romney held a 39% to 27% edge.
But Santorum holds a 35% to 29% advantage in the 96 counties outside the Chicago area, where Republican voters tend to be more conservative. The Illinois poll results mirror the suburban-rural dynamic that played out on Super Tuesday in Ohio, where Romney gained a close but needed victory last week.
As exit polling of earlier primary states has shown, Romney continues to struggle among voters who describe themselves as very conservative and question the former Massachusetts governor's conservative credentials. Among very conservative voters in Illinois — 29% of the GOP electorate — Santorum was backed by 43% compared with 29% for Romney.
The trend ran the other direction among the 31% of Republican voters who call themselves moderate: Romney is favored by 39% to Santorum's 17%.
That leaves those who call themselves fairly conservative, almost 40% of Republican primary voters. They give a narrow and statistically insignificant edge to Romney over Santorum, 36% to 32%.
While Romney has largely stuck to economic issues in trying to appeal to voters, Santorum also has used a conservative social message in an effort to win the backing of Christian conservatives.
In Illinois, 42% of voters described themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians. Of that group, 42% are backing Santorum compared with 26% for Romney. Of the 54% of voters who do not consider themselves born-again or evangelical Christians, Romney leads Santorum, 43% to 22%.
Further marginalizing the rest of the field, Illinois Republican primary voters view Romney and Santorum very favorably, while voters are almost evenly divided in their feelings toward former House Speaker Gingrich and more have an unfavorable view of Paul than not.
Romney was viewed favorably by six in 10 GOP primary voters, while 19% looked at him unfavorably. Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, was considered favorably by 54% of primary voters, while 17% had an unfavorable view.
While the poll shows a great deal of volatility among Illinois Republicans, the results also could play to Romney's strengths.
Fully 61% of those preferring Romney say their minds are made up, compared with only 51% of Santorum voters. In addition, 52% of Downstate voters say they could change their minds.
That leaves room for Romney and his "super political action committee" to unload negative attack ads to try to define Santorum as it has done in previous states where the race has been close. Already, the Romney-aligned Restore Our Future PAC has made more than $900,000 in TV ad buys across the state.
Super PACs aligned with the other candidates have yet to reveal any airtime purchased in Illinois.
Among voters age 50 and older, a group that reliably goes to the polls, Romney led Santorum 37% to 29%. Among suburban women, a key demographic that tends to be more moderate, Romney had a 45% to 27% edge over Santorum.
Voters with incomes of more than $100,000 a year favored Romney over Santorum, 42% to 27%. But Santorum held a 35%-to-32% lead among those voters earning less than $100,000 annually.
The poll found that Republican voters viewed picking a contender who could beat home-state Democratic President Barack Obama as the most important quality in a candidate, at 35%. Another 25% said choosing a candidate of strong moral character was most important, while 21% said finding a person who has the necessary experience was and 14% said selecting a true conservative was.
A total of 46% of Romney voters cited defeating Obama as their top priority, compared with 34% of Gingrich supporters and 32% of Santorum backers. Forty-four percent of Paul voters cited strong moral character as their top issue, compared with 35% of those backing Santorum.