Romney redoubles effort in Ill. after last week’s losses to Santorum

March 17, 2012

— Looking to rebound decisively after a pair of third-place finishes in Alabama and Mississippi last week, Mitt Romney returned to Illinois on Saturday night focused on attacking potential strongholds for Rick Santorum before Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary.

Barely a week ago, Romney and his campaign team seemed so confident about their prospects in Illinois that they were planning not to visit the state until the eve of the primary. But that all changed after Tuesday. Still heavily favored to win Illinois, the former Massachusetts governor nonetheless tore up his schedule and cut short a campaign trip to Puerto Rico, which holds its primary Sunday, to devote extra days to a contest that he hopes will restore his momentum in the battle for the nomination.

Though Chicago and its suburbs will cast a majority of the votes Tuesday, the smaller towns far from the city drew the leading Republican candidates Saturday.

Romney’s greatest strength will be in the Chicago area, where Republicans are fiscally conservative but more moderate on social issues. In downstate Illinois, particularly where Santorum campaigned Saturday, the population is sparser, but the former Pennsylvania senator’s social conservatism and moral passion are likely to find considerable support there.

Santorum scheduled three stops in central and southern Illinois; Romney’s town hall was across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.

At a mid-afternoon rally in Effingham, Santorum drew a crowd approaching 1,000. He lashed out at Romney, calling him a moderate who would not be able to draw a sharp enough contrast with President Obama in the general election.

As a voice from the audience cried out “Down with Obama,” Santorum responded that Republicans should not nominate someone “who agrees with that horrible record” of the president.

As at nearly every stop, Santorum attacked Romney for enacting a health-care plan in Massachusetts that he said was a model for Obama’s national health-care law. “We need someone who can go out and take President Obama on,” Santorum said.

Santorum said that if voters deliver him a victory Tuesday, “I guarantee you that we will win this nomination. We will nominate a conservative, and if we nominate a conservative, we will beat Obama.”

But, as if to hedge his bets, Romney’s closest rival planned to leave the state Sunday for Louisiana, where Saturday’s primary may help him rebound if he loses Illinois. Santorum visited the Chicago suburbs Friday, then made a brief detour to Missouri on Saturday, where Republicans were holding their precinct caucuses. The caucuses are the first of several steps in a process of picking their delegates to the national convention. There were no immediate results from Missouri.

Santorum won the state’s beauty contest primary Feb. 7, one of three victories that night that catapulted him into the top ranks of the GOP race. But Romney’s campaign is focused on winning more delegates.

At his rally here Saturday night, Romney also attacked Obama, calling him an “economic lightweight,” a term he earlier applied to Santorum. He said Republicans dare not nominate an economic lightweight to lead the party into the general election. He hit Obama hard on rising pump prices, claiming that the president had said during his 2008 campaign that prices would need to go up to reduce demand and saying that Obama has now undergone an election-year conversion.

Taking aim at administration officials, Romney accused the secretaries of the energy and interior departments and the head of the Environmental Protection Agency of “working like crazy” to push up prices. They should resign or be fired, he said.

One audience member asked about the candidate’s personal wealth. Romney was indignant. To cheers from the audience, he said: “I am not in this race to make money. I’ve already made enough. . . . I’m not embarrassed about being successful, but I’m embarrassed for people who think there’s something wrong with that.”

Romney’s stepped-up efforts in Illinois also include harsh new negative advertising. As in all other states with competitive races, Romney and a super PAC are heavily outspending Santorum.

Santorum joked with audiences this weekend about the automated telephone calls Romney’s campaign is beaming into Illinois households. In asking for campaign donations, Santorum pledged not to spend the money on the so-called robocalls.

Romney’s advisers have expressed little concern that he could lose the state’s primary — which would have a devastating impact on his candidacy — but the candidate is doubling down to grind out as big a win as possible. Romney typically keeps a light schedule on Sundays or takes the day off, but he plans to make three stops across Illinois on Sunday and to visit again on Monday before an election night party Tuesday in the Chicago suburbs.

While Romney is the favorite in Illinois, he and his aides have tried to keep expectations in check. Asked Saturday to assess his chances, Romney told reporters: “You know, I hope that we’re going to do well there, as well, but I’m going to be there this afternoon, so we’ll see.”

Ron Kaufman, a senior adviser who was traveling with Romney in Puerto Rico, said of the campaign’s confidence heading into Tuesday: “This is not a cycle for confidence. This is a cycle for hard work.”

Dan Balz is Chief Correspondent at The Washington Post. He has served as the paper’s National Editor, Political Editor, White House correspondent and Southwest correspondent.
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