For Romney, however, this was about more than just numbers. After squeaker victories over Santorum in Michigan and Ohio, he needed to show that he could kindle enough voter enthusiasm for a big win outside his Northeastern power base.
On Tuesday, he got it. For the first time since long-ago Florida, the former Massachusetts governor demonstrated that he could win as big as he spends.
“Today, hundreds of thousands of people in Illinois have joined millions of people around the country to join our cause,” a confident Romney told supporters in Schaumburg, Ill., on Tuesday night. He said nothing about his Republican rivals but attacked President Obama as an impediment to job creation and economic recovery.
“Enough,” he said. “We’ve had enough.”
Romney won many of the populous suburban counties in the Chicago area, while Santorum took rural areas in the south and west. Romney still remains far from the winning threshold of 1,144 delegates, which means the GOP race will probably continue for weeks.
For Santorum, Illinois was a dismal end to an unhappy week.
Just seven days earlier, the former senator from Pennsylvania had won surprising victories in Mississippi and Alabama. But after that, he stumbled.
He left Illinois — a state where he had a chance to beat Romney — and spent parts of two valuable days campaigning in Puerto Rico, where he had none.
When Tuesday was over, Santorum appeared to have lost in both places. He was already ineligible for 10 of Illinois’ delegates, because he had not filed the correct paperwork.
“We won the areas that conservatives and Republicans populate, and we’re very happy about that,” Santorum told supporters Tuesday night in Gettysburg, Pa.
He said Romney is the wrong man for a crucial time in which the basics of American freedom and free enterprise are at risk: “We don’t need a manager. We need somebody who’s going to pull up government by the roots and throw it out, and do something to liberate the private sector.”
Up next: Louisiana
Santorum’s prospects look better in Louisiana, which will hold its primary on Saturday. But he still appears to have little hope of passing Romney in the race for GOP delegates. On Tuesday, Santorum’s campaign offered its rosiest estimate of the state of that contest — and still had him down by 124 delegates. Outsiders said that was too optimistic.
Illinois was the 27th state to vote this year as an unsettled GOP contest rumbles through places unaccustomed to primary fights. Romney has won 16 of them. Santorum has won nine.
The results in Illinois seemed to further deflate the hopes of former House speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.), who has won just twice. Going into Tuesday’s vote, Gingrich was already a distant third in the delegate count. In Illinois, he appeared likely to come in fourth, behind Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.).