Romney, Santorum Spar Over Economy as Illinois Votes

Romney, Santorum Spar Over Economy as Illinois Votes

By Erin McPike - March 20, 2012

On the eve of today's Illinois Republican primary, Rick Santorum made a gaffe when speaking about the economy -- but he managed in the process to step on Mitt Romney's speech the same day about his own economic vision.

"I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates," Santorum said Monday in Illinois, according to Reuters.

His point was that a presidential candidate shouldn’t focus on a single economic indicator and instead should govern on a broader basis. But the unemployment rate has been an albatross for President Obama, and this seemingly cavalier pronouncement on a wedge issue could stick with Santorum as Illinois voters head to the polls today.

Romney already leads him in the RealClearPolitics polling average by 8.5 percentage points in President Obama’s home state, a big prize in the delegate race with 69. Those delegates are awarded proportionally, so Santorum could add to his tally even without a win, but he enters primary day at a disadvantage, having failed to qualify for delegate slates in some of the state’s congressional districts.

That means Romney is poised to increase his lead. Nonetheless, the intraparty battle he’s immersed in does not seem destined to end any time soon.

In his remarks Monday, Santorum went on to scold his chief opponent: "We have one nominee who says he wants to run the economy. What kind of conservative says the president runs the economy? What kind of conservative says, 'I'm the guy because of my economic experience that can create jobs'? I don't know. We conservatives generally think government doesn't create jobs."

For his part, Romney has been firing at Santorum too, trying to brand the former Pennsylvania senator as an “economic lightweight.” But in a Chicago speech Monday afternoon, Romney took aim at President Obama, asserting that “freedom is on the ballot this year.”

Slightly less abstract was this line, the theme of his speech: “The Obama administration’s assault on our economic freedom is the principal reason why the recovery has been so tepid -- why it couldn’t meet their projections, let alone our expectations.”

Taken together, Santorum’s and Romney’s remarks suggest that the candidates are in a bit of a bind: They seem uncertain how to tailor their messages on improving key economic indicators as they challenge an incumbent president who is leading the recovery -- albeit a slow one.

But for the time being, both are locked in a pitched battle with each other to become the party’s standard-bearer, even though a consensus is growing that Romney ultimately will lock up the nomination.

To win in Illinois, his campaign and the unaffiliated super PAC supporting him have swamped Santorum’s operation on the airwaves. Some of Romney’s staffers who toiled for his narrow victory in Ohio on Super Tuesday were dispatched to Illinois to oversee operations in that nearby Midwestern state.

Romney is expected to perform well in the densely populated area around Chicago; Santorum’s base is in the outer regions and the rural parts of the state. In recent primaries, Santorum has performed better than polling suggested at the outset of those races, but he has trailed Romney in all four polls of Illinois conducted this month.

Of course, Santorum didn’t lead in a single poll before Mississippi and Alabama held their contests last week, but still won both. Results such as those may provide him with hope of an upset today. 

Erin McPike is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ErinMcPike.

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