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With His Big Win In Illinois, Romney Could Regain Nomination Mojo

Mitt Romney greets supporters during an Illinois GOP primary victory party in Schaumburg.
Scott Olson
Getty Images
Mitt Romney greets supporters during an Illinois GOP primary victory party in Schaumburg.

If only the rest of the nation were like Illinois, the past few months would have been much less stressful for Mitt Romney.

Illinois delivered a healing balm in the form of a resounding victory for the Republican presidential front-runner in Tuesday night's GOP primary, with Republicans there giving him about half of their votes.

It wasn't a surprise that Romney won. Polls in the run-up to primary day indicated he had a significant lead over his closest rival, Rick Santorum.

Still, the size of his win was impressive — about 12 percentage points.

As has been oft-stated in recent days, Illinois, with its more upscale, well-educated and moderate Republicans, especially in the counties surrounding Chicago, was always favorable political terrain for Romney.

And true to form, Romney crushed Santorum among those Illinoisans with annual incomes of $100,000 or more. Those are Romney's people, and they came through for him on primary-election night.

But Romney also showed strength across a broad swath of Republican voters, many in demographic groups he has had trouble attracting elsewhere.

For instance, in exit polling he did better than Santorum with voters whose incomes were $30,000 to $50,000 (43 percent to 37 percent, although Santorum did better with voters under $30,000) and who said they supported the Tea Party movement (47 percent to 36 percent.)

While Santorum outperformed Romney with white evangelicals (46 percent), Romney did well enough at 39 percent to have reason to be encouraged.

Thus, if the Alabama and Mississippi primaries were "away games," to use Romney's somewhat curious description of two states that are part of the Republican Party's Southern base, Illinois was very much a home game.

If Illinois suited Romney's appeal to upscale voters, it also was tailored to his war chest. With the large media markets of Chicago in the north and St. Louis, whose Missouri-based stations count many southern Illinoisans in their audience, Romney had the money to reach voters.

He outspent Santorum by at least 20 to 1 in Illinois and was joined in his massive spending binge by his allies in the "Restore Our Future" superPAC. Santorum essentially was swamped, as he has been before and will likely be again, in a sea of pro-Romney cash.

Meanwhile, Romney continued to benefit considerably from the widely held perception that of the remaining candidates, he would fare best against President Obama. That has been his argument all along. Even many Republican voters who don't like him appear to agree with him.

In time, Romney's sizable victory in Illinois may come to be seen as an inflection point in the contest for the nomination, with the former Massachusetts governor arcing toward being officially chosen as his party's standard bearer and Santorum falling back.

Before Tuesday, Illinois was called a must-win state for Romney, and it surely seemed like it was. If he had lost there, in a state almost ideal for his success, the already considerable doubts about his candidacy would have gained momentum.

Instead, it's Romney who comes out of Illinois with the wind at his back. Santorum may still be able to pull off a victory or two, like in Louisiana this coming Saturday.

At this point, however, they may be more moral than practical victories for Santorum. It's difficult to see how he gets to the magic 1,144 delegates, especially when Romney only increased his delegate lead Tuesday.

Santorum showed no signs of getting out of the race Tuesday evening, however. Neither did Newt Gingrich or Rep. Ron Paul. Even though they may not be leaving the contest, it appears to have left them.

That's because the delegate count and the array of upcoming states very much favor Romney. Washington, D.C., Maryland and Wisconsin on April 3 are followed by Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island on April 24. Of that group, the state Santorum represented in the U.S. Senate, Pennsylvania, would appear to offer his best chance of a victory.

While he leads in polls there now, a month is a lifetime in politics. Romney and his superPAC allies won't be idle. They'll likely spend the money they need in an effort to remind Pennsylvania voters why, in 2006, they voted Santorum out of the Senate.

It may turn out that Santorum's decision to be in Gettysburg, Pa., the night of the Illinois primary may prove an omen for a campaign that feels to many as though it has already experienced its high water mark.

In July of 1863, another campaign, a Confederate military one, passed through Gettysburg. It was there that the lost cause was thought to have become truly lost, symbolized by George Pickett's famous charge through the Wheatfield that cost so much more in men than it gained in terms of any military objective. Illinois may have been the Wheatfield for Santorum.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Frank James
Frank James joined NPR News in April 2009 to launch the blog, "The Two-Way," with co-blogger Mark Memmott.