Mitt Romney addresses supporters after winning the Illinois primary. (Scott Sttrazzante / Chicago…)
Reporting from Chicago — Minutes after being declared the winner in Illinois, Mitt Romney took to the stage at a hotel in a suburb of Chicago and drew sharp contrasts between himself and President Obama, signaling that he is increasingly focusing on the general election rather than on others in the Republican field.
“For 25 years, I lived and breathed business and the economy and jobs. I had successes and failures. But each step of the way, I learned about what it was that makes our American system so powerful,” Romney said, dressed in a dark blue suit and surrounded by risers of cheering supporters flapping white Romney signs. “You can't learn that teaching constitutional law at the University of Chicago.”
Romney has focused on his message of “economic freedom” in Illinois, delivering a policy speech Monday at the University of Chicago and blaming the Obama administration for its regulatory policies on a college campus in Peoria, Ill.
His election night speech again touched on those themes, blaming Obama for preventing drilling in the gulf, coal mining in the mountains and for telling farmers what their children can do on family farms. He didn’t mention his Republican opponents once.
Romney mocked Obama for recently saying that the country invents things, delivering a zinger as the crowd chanted “Mitt, Mitt, Mitt.”
“A regulator would have shut down the Wright brothers for their 'dust pollution.' And the government would have banned Thomas Edison’s light bulb. Oh, that’s right, they just did,” he said, referring to how the transition to eco-friendly bulbs had helped send manufacturing overseas.
Romney captured a large percentage of the delegates in Illinois, which must have led to a sigh of relief from campaign organizers after Rick Santorum appeared to be surging in recent weeks, winning Alabama and Mississippi. But a clear Romney victory in Illinois allowed him to turn his sights on Obama and talk about the economy.
“You and I know what President Obama still has not learned, even after three years and hundreds of billions of dollars in spending: The government does not create prosperity; prosperity is the product of free markets and free people,” Romney said.
Romney admitted in his speech, as he has in recent days, that the economy is recovering, but he blames the weakness of the recovery on Obama.
“This administration thinks our economy is struggling because the stimulus was too small. The truth is our economy is struggling because the government is too big,” he said.
The crowd in the Renaissance Convention Center in Schaumburg appeared largely white and middle-aged. Some sipped beer and wine as they milled about the hall, where a blues band played – very loudly – in the background, and Fox News was projected onto large screens.
But the crowd also included people such as Hector Nunez, a 37-year-old truck driver who said he didn’t vote in the last presidential election because he didn’t like any of the candidates.
“I’m a small-business owner, and he’s about business. That’s attractive,” he said of Romney.
Romney succeeded in Illinois where he faltered in the South because of voters such as Ellyn Caruso, 51, who says she likes Romney because he’s fiscally conservative but not too far to the right on social issues.
She said she wasn’t worried that the nomination process was taking such a long time – she’s confident that Romney will prevail, despite comments from some pundits that the prolonged battle has weakened all the Republican candidates.
“I never listen to what the pundits say,” she said.
Her husband, Carmen, said he was confident that many voters would agree with he and his wife, that Obama was leading the country in the wrong direction. Romney, on the other hand, would lead it the right way, he said.
“He's a turnaround artist; we need a turnaround artist,” Caruso said.