CHICAGO — After losing the South to Rick Santorum a week ago, Mitt Romney did what he had to do in the Republican presidential primary in Illinois on Tuesday and perhaps a little more. His victory was far more impressive than it was in Michigan or Ohio. He added to his delegate lead and improved his support among key parts of the GOP coalition.
But another way to look at Tuesday’s results is that Romney did only what he was expected to do. He won in a big Northern state with an electorate tailor-made for his brand of moderate conservatism. In that sense, the outcome in Illinois did not change the Republican race so much as it confirmed the patterns that have taken hold in the past six weeks.
Over the next two weeks, two states will offer the opportunity for the leading candidates to break the mold that has existed since Santorum won three contests on a single night in February and staked his claim as Romney’s principal rival. The first is Louisiana, which will hold its primary on Saturday. The second is Wisconsin, which, along with Maryland and the District of Columbia, will vote on April 3.
Tuesday’s results showed that the nomination contest has turned from the high drama of winter to almost tedious predictability in the spring. Romney will win more states than he loses while continuing to rack up more delegates than his rivals. But Santorum still may have the capacity to win states with a high percentage of evangelical Christians, very conservative Republicans, strong supporters of the tea party movement or voters with family incomes below $100,000.
Romney’s sizable win in Illinois will generate talk among his loyalists that it is time to close ranks and bring the race to a close. In reality, it may take a breakout in an unexpected place to accelerate or, far more improbably, put a real brake on what otherwise appears to be Romney’s long, slow march to victory.
Santorum will be favored Saturday in Louisiana, a Southern state with a conservative electorate that should be to his liking. A Romney upset would deal a significant setback to Santorum’s hopes of carrying on this battle to the end of the primaries in June. Romney wanted that breakthrough victory in Mississippi last week but ended up third. He’s unlikely to raise expectations in Louisiana.
Santorum’s real hope to shake up the race and raise new doubts about Romney as the leader of a conservative party will be in Wisconsin. The Badger State will present an interesting challenge. It is a kind of geographic boundary between the states in the industrial heartland that Romney has won — Illinois, Michigan and Ohio — and the Midwestern states west of the Mississippi River — Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri — where Santorum has found support.
Wisconsin is both industrial and agrarian. It could be a competitive battleground in November. It has been a political hotbed for the past year. Its GOP leadership includes two conservatives — Gov. Scott Walker and House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan — who are prominent role models for the new Republican Party.