Romney Cruises to Victory in Illinois

Romney Cruises to Victory in Illinois

By Tom Bevan and Carl M. Cannon - March 21, 2012

CHICAGO -- Mitt Romney took another step toward the Republican nomination for president tonight, cruising to victory over his rivals in the key state of Illinois. With 54 delegates at stake, Romney was tallying some 47 percent of the vote, nearly as much as his three challengers -- Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and Ron Paul -- combined.

Tuesday’s decisive win, coupled with his landslide victory in Puerto Rico on Sunday, took the sheen off Santorum’s double-barreled win in Alabama and Mississippi a week earlier and earned Romney the lion’s share of Illinois’ convention delegates.

An unbowed Santorum, who ran second with just over one-third of the votes, vowed during a speech in Gettysburg, Pa., that he would continue on, predicting he would win the next contest, which is Saturday’s Louisiana primary, as well as his home state of Pennsylvania in five weeks.

But the night -- and, with it, perhaps, the campaign season -- belonged to Romney.

“Thank you, Illinois! What a night!” Romney told an enthusiastic crowd at his state headquarters in the suburban Chicago city of Schaumburg. The winner, with wife Ann by his side, barely paused to congratulate his three Republican opponents before launching into an extended brief against President Obama’s “assault” on economic freedom.

“The simple truth is that this president doesn’t understand the genius of the American economy or the secret of the American economic success story,” Romney said, reprising the well-received speech he gave Monday on Obama’s home turf at the University of Chicago. “The American economy is fueled by freedom. . . . We need a president who believes in us, and I believe in the American people.”

Romney is something of the Rodney Dangerfield of GOP politics -- no matter how many contests or delegates he wins, he never seems to get much respect -- but Tuesday’s win bolsters the front-runner’s burgeoning delegate totals along with his claim that he is simply the strongest general election candidate in the Republican field. The former Massachusetts governor has now swept the trifecta of large Midwestern states -- Ohio, Michigan and Illinois -- while also recording convincing wins in two southern states Barack Obama carried in 2008, Virginia (where only he and Ron Paul were on the ballot) and Florida, both crucial to Republicans’ 2012 electoral calculus.

Although Romney’s win in Illinois was expected, his team left little to chance in the days leading up to the contest. His campaign saturated the airwaves with ads, most of them negative, and burned up phones lines with anti-Santorum robo-calls all concentrated heavily in the Chicago area and its suburbs, outspending Santorum in the Windy City media market by a whopping 20 to 1, according to some estimates.

All that activity paid off, as Romney ran up big margins among Republican voters in Cook County and the surrounding “collar counties,” swamping Santorum’s effort to make the race competitive by winning the more rural, conservative counties in the west and south of the state.

Finishing far up the track, Texas Rep. Ron Paul was running in third place with less than 10 percent of the vote, but ahead of former House speaker Gingrich, who trailed in fourth place. Paul, a libertarian at heart, is running his third quixotic presidential campaign in an attempt to shape the debate within the Republican Party in ways that make it less interventionist abroad and more frugal at home. Paul has made little headway on the foreign policy front, but his emphasis on fiscal prudence has become party orthodoxy.

Gingrich is a different story. As the primary season began in January, he was confidently and publicly predicting that his nomination was a foregone conclusion. Today, short on money and momentum, his effort looks more and more like a vanity project.

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Tom Bevan is the co-founder and Executive Editor of RealClearPolitics. Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Editor for RealClearPolitics.

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