Mitt Romney finally won a big-state primary without any ifs, ands, or buts.
Unlike the Republican presidential front-runner’s other major victories in recent weeks, Tuesday’s triumph in Illinois wasn’t pocked with asterisks. As in, of course he won Michigan, where he was born and where his father served as governor. Or, how can he brag about Ohio, where he creamed Rick Santorum in spending but only beat him by a single percentage point? And what’s the big deal about Romney winning Virginia, where Santorum and Gingrich weren’t even on the ballot?
Illinois, in contrast, was a clean hit.
The state was neutral turf. A Chicago Tribune poll released over a week ago showed Santorum in striking distance. And Romney on Tuesday beat him by double-digits, 47 percent to 35 percent, according to late returns. (Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, got 8 percent, and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, 9 percent, but neither candidate actively competed in Illinois.)
The results won’t clinch the nomination for Romney, but they will help dispel doubts about whether he will ultimately close the deal before the nominating convention in Tampa in August. Perhaps more importantly, the decisive vote in the industrial Midwest raises the bar for Romney’s rivals to argue that they still belong in the race, despite implausible paths to the nomination.
Still, it’s unclear how much momentum Romney can get out of his back-to-back wins in Puerto Rico on Sunday and Illinois on Tuesday before an anticipated loss in Louisiana on Saturday. The Mormon former governor of Massachusetts has yet to win a state in the Deep South, where the Republican electorate is heavily blue-collar and evangelical. Constituencies there have favored Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator who has run on religious themes and hot-button social issues.
So once again, Romney is forced to pivot from celebrating a victory to bracing for a loss—as he did after New Hampshire, Nevada, and his six-state sweep on Super Tuesday.
“I call him the political high hurdler because every time he clears one, there’s another in front of him,’’ said Paul Green, director of the Institute for Politics at Roosevelt University in Chicago. “He keeps facing these do-or-die barriers, and he just has to keep playing along. It’s a game and the game will go on.’’
Hours before the polls closed, the Santorum campaign tried to cushion itself against an expected loss in Illinois in a telephone call with reporters touting “the real delegate count.’’ Santorum’s team argued that he is getting more delegates than expected out of the handful of states where Republicans have started electing their actual delegates to the convention, which in some states has nothing to do with the popular vote. If Romney fails to win the 1,144 delegates needed to lock down the nomination before the convention, the former Pennsylvania senator could prevail among the conservative activists in attendance in Tampa, the Santorum campaign reasons.
Romney allies don’t buy it. At least publicly, they are confident he will get the requisite number of delegates and that Santorum won’t come close. “I think the rationale for anyone else to continue is diminishing,’’ said longtime Romney adviser Ron Kaufman.
Going into Tuesday’s contest, Romney had 522 delegates, Santorum had 252, Gingrich had 136, and Paul had 50, according to the Associated Press delegate count. At stake in Illinois were 69 delegates to the Republican convention, and 54 will be allotted according to the primary results.
Louisiana, like Mississippi and Alabama a week ago, is a must-win state for Santorum if he wants to continue to frame the contest as a two-man race. The stakes are not lost on Gingrich, who campaigned in Louisiana on Tuesday and is expected to continue to do so until the Saturday primary. If the former Georgia congressman loses in Louisiana, his already thinning claim to the South, and to the nomination, practically evaporates.
In the days leading up to the vote on President Obama’s home turf in Illinois, Romney hewed closely to his jobs-first message, with television ads calling Santorum an “economic lightweight’’ and a speech at the University of Chicago that accused the administration of an “assault on our economic freedom.’’
Santorum was so insecure about his prospects in Illinois that he retreated to his home state of Pennsylvania while the votes were still being tallied. His defeat came after a week in which his shortcomings as a candidate often overrode his message. Instead of sticking to the populist economic cry that has found appeal among working-class voters, Santorum offered Puerto Rico a poorly received lecture on how residents need to learn English before achieving statehood. Why Santorum was there in the first place, instead of trying to close a smaller gap with Romney in Illinois, reflected the former Pennsylvania senator’s seat-of-the-pants campaign. Santorum himself said that an upset in Illinois would guarantee him the nomination.
Making matters worse, Santorum handed Romney easy-to-load ammunition when he tried to add lift to his campaign beyond kitchen-table economics.
“We need a candidate who’s going to be a fighter for freedom. Who’s going to get up and make that the central theme in this race because it is the central theme in this race,” Santorum said in Illinois. “I don't care what the unemployment rate’s going to be.’’
The Romney campaign immediately seized on the unemployment gaffe, forcing Santorum to clarify his remarks.
A majority of Illinois voters on Tuesday named the economy as their top concern, according to exit polls. They overwhelmingly see Romney as the candidate most likely to beat Obama, and by a narrower margin, as the one who understands the problems of ordinary Americans. As in most of the previous contests, Santorum was more popular among evangelicals and voters looking for a “true conservative.”
Correction: Santorum was a senator from Pennsylvania.