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In Illinois, Romney grinds away with attacks on Santorum

He's heavily outspending his conservative rival in another key primary as he struggles to clinch the Republican nomination before the August convention.

March 18, 2012|By Paul West, Washington Bureau
  • Mitt Romney campaigns in Rockford, Ill. He's heavily outspending his main Republican rival, Rick Santorum, before the state's primary on Tuesday
Mitt Romney campaigns in Rockford, Ill. He's heavily outspending… (Tannen Maury, European…)

Reporting from Chicago — In the latest indication that momentum is nonexistent in the Republican presidential contest, Mitt Romney won a victory in Puerto Rico on Sunday and worked toward another in Illinois on Tuesday, results that would quash Rick Santorum's efforts to build on primary successes last week in Alabama and Mississippi.

On Sunday, the candidates were traveling down very different campaign paths. Romney made stops across Illinois, including in conservative areas downstate where Santorum is expected to show strength. Santorum, meantime, skipped ahead to campaign in Louisiana, which votes this weekend.

Until recently, Santorum appeared to have a good chance of winning Illinois, the second-most populous state to vote so far this year, behind Florida. He's urged his Illinois supporters to help him forge an upset that "can shake up this race like no state can shake it up" and turn the campaign "completely on its head."

But the Romney forces have been grinding Santorum down, as they have elsewhere, with nonstop attack ads that the underfinanced challenger appears powerless to overcome. Statewide polling that once showed a tight race is now tilting Romney's way.

Romney and the "super PAC" supporting him have spent more than $3.6 million on advertising in Illinois, compared with just over $500,000 for Santorum and his super PAC, according to figures provided by a Democratic source with access to media-buying information. Most of that money has gone into anti-Santorum ads in the Chicago media market, which reaches more than half of the Republican primary electorate.

The enormous gap in campaign money has made it tougher for the conservative Santorum to compete in larger, more diverse states over the last month. That pattern appears to be playing out again in Illinois, which has historically supported more moderate Republicans. In 2008, John McCain won the state's primary by 20 percentage points.

McCain is scheduled to campaign for Romney in the Chicago area on Monday. But former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, a McCain backer last time, has rebuffed entreaties from the Romney camp and is sitting out this year's presidential primary. In an interview, he described the GOP election as a "lesser of the evils" choice and expressed concern over Romney's prospects in the fall.

"With how far he's moving to the right," Edgar said, "it's going to be a little bit harder now for him to win than it was a year ago, when he was viewed as more of a moderate."

Romney's image as a flip-flopper will likely complicate any effort to pivot back to the center, he added, after a primary campaign that is highlighting issues such as contraception and Romney's hard-line views on illegal immigration.

"It'll be extremely difficult for him to become a little more pro-woman and pro-immigrant," Edgar said. "If we lose those groups, it just makes it that much more difficult in the general election."

The other remaining candidates in the race are on the Illinois ballot but aren't making much of an effort. Newt Gingrich spent two days in the state last week but has shifted his attention to Louisiana; Rep. Ron Paul held a rally at the University of Illinois on Wednesday, and then moved on.

The Republican primary is a two-stage process, in which voters state their preferences for presidential candidates in a nonbinding "beauty contest" and then vote directly for delegates pledged to contenders. Santorum, who failed to file full slates in several congressional districts, is eligible for only 44 of the state's 54 delegates.

He said Sunday on CNN that during the period when delegate names had to be submitted, "I was driving around in a truck with a guy named Chuck in Iowa, you know, breathing through a swizzle stick and running a marathon." Santorum added that the "real question" in the GOP race was why Romney, "with tens and hundreds of millions of dollars, hasn't ... been able to do anything to get this nomination even close to cemented away."

In Illinois, Romney is telling voters, in TV ads, that his conservative plans represent "the boldest GOP agenda since Reagan." But he has had difficulty winning over very conservative Republicans and is expected to lose delegates to Santorum in more conservative parts of the state.

It probably will take months before Romney's war of attrition yields the 1,144 delegates to secure the nomination. His huge victory in Puerto Rico on Sunday earned him 20 more. On "Fox News Sunday," he was told by interviewer Bret Baier that to win he needed 48% of the remaining delegates before the primary season ended June 26.

"I can't tell you exactly how the process is going to work," Romney said. "But I bet I'm going to become the nominee."

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