— Richard Waddell, a retired engineer and salesman of industrial storage equipment, might sum up the unexpectedly tight race in the Land of Lincoln.

A staunch conservative, Waddell is looking for someone to beat President Obama, first and foremost, but also wants it to be someone with great passion and intellect who will aggressively confront him. “I’ve been between a rock and a hard place,” Waddell said Tuesday afternoon at a senior center in this small town about 65 miles west of Chicago.

It’s a common spot for much of the electorate, as the race appears to be very close based on a recent Chicago Tribune poll that showed Mitt Romney leading Rick Santorum, 35 to 31 percent; a full 16 percent were undecided on any of the four remaining candidates in the race, with the potential to swing the race in either direction.

Back in 2008, Waddell was a supporter of the former Massachusetts governor and presumed he would again back Romney in Tuesday’s Illinois primary.

Then he began to have his doubts about Romney, whether he was tough enough, and along came former House speaker Newt Gingrich with a series of strong performances in the debates late last year.

Waddell — who was attending a campaign event for freshman Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), who faces a tough primary Tuesday — said he was entranced by Gingrich. He described himself as “very strong for Newt” at that point.

The former speaker’s passion and ideas were the right mix to go toe-to-toe with Obama in the fall debates, he surmised. Then, Gingrich began to lose altitude amid a series of stumbles and appeared less presidential.

Waddell wasn’t sure what to do. “There are some nights I go to sleep wondering what I’m gonna do,” he said. He still wasn’t sold on Romney. Having worked at an industrial manufacturing plant for most of his life, first in engineering and then selling storage equipment, he wants someone who would push that portion of the economy. In 2000, after 40 years at the same company, he was let go. “Out in the cold with my nose pressed up against the window,” he said, recalling his feeling.

He bounced around in a few different jobs for another five years or so, then at 65, retired. He has a son who lives in Florida, which held its presidential primary back in late January. Over the last few weeks, the son worked over his father, little by little, to come to his candidate — Rick Santorum.

Come Tuesday, Waddell said, he plans to vote for the former Pennsylvania senator, someone he knew little about just a few months ago. He believes Santorum has the right mix of background and passion to take on Obama. However, regardless of which candidate wins the nomination, Waddell said that he will happily vote Republican in the fall and desperately wishes some of the negative attacks among the candidates would stop.

“There’s so much conflict between Republicans now,” he said, sighing.