Winning Illinois may be tall task for Santorum

2012-03-17T20:30:00Z 2012-03-17T23:25:28Z Winning Illinois may be tall task for SantorumThe Associated Press The Associated Press
March 17, 2012 8:30 pm  • 

SPRINGFIELD | Conservative Republicans can win primaries in Illinois — just look at the GOP's last candidate for governor. But presidential candidate Rick Santorum may find it's no easy task.

Major conservative leaders are staying neutral in the primary. Santorum has raised relatively little money in Illinois. Conservative blogs and Facebook pages are giving more attention to congressional races than the presidential primary. Key counties don't show any surge in registration or early voting that might suggest a wave of Santorum support.

Illinois' Republican voters also are very different than the ones who pushed Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, to victory over Mitt Romney in states such as Mississippi and Alabama. Two recent polls show Romney with a slim lead in Illinois, which has a long history of nominating moderate Republicans.

"It's clearly, I would say, Romney's race to lose," said Bruno Behrend, a consultant for the conservative group For The Good of Illinois.

No matter who wins the most votes Tuesday, Santorum and Romney are both likely to emerge with a healthy number of delegates. That's because Illinois selects them congressional district by congressional district, giving each candidate a chance to pick up delegates in the parts of the state where he's strongest.

For Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, that's urban and suburban areas, mostly around Chicago.

Romney certainly describes himself as conservative and isn't conceding the votes of the party's right wing. But he is widely seen as a better match with suburban voters who tend to be more moderate on gun control, abortion and similar social issues. The Chicago region provided 54 percent of Republican votes in the 2008 presidential primary.

Santorum should run strongest downstate, particularly in rural areas. Voters there lifted sharply conservative Bill Brady to the Republican nomination for governor in 2010. Brady was helped by several suburban candidates splitting the Chicago region's vote, an advantage that Santorum does not have.

Brady, a state senator, is staying neutral in the presidential primary out of gratitude for campaign help he got two years ago from Romney and Newt Gingrich. But he suggested that Santorum avoid anything that makes him appear heartless.

"It's important that he not come across as hard-edged," Brady said. "You have to express your positions in a caring way."

Santorum's campaign intends to emphasize the candidate's blue-collar roots and conservative values.

"His working-class heritage is going to play well in many parts of Illinois," said Santorum's Illinois coordinator, Jon Zahm. "You'll also hear about Rick's support of traditional one-man, one-woman marriage. He's never wavered on that."

Every race is affected by intangibles that can't be measured. Maybe Santorum's recent wins will give him a late boost in momentum. Maybe voters will decide they like the idea of going into the convention without a clear winner. Perhaps, even though there's no sign of it, Gingrich or Ron Paul are quietly clicking with Illinois voters.

Santorum has done well in states with strong support for the tea party, a movement that has seen mixed results in Illinois.

One Illinois tea party activist, Diane Benjamin of the McLean County Tea Party, enthusiastically backs Santorum and sees strong support for him in the area. She called him a family man who is far different from the RINOs — Republican in name only — that usually appear on the ballot.

"Now we have a chance to support an actual conservative," Benjamin said.

Some other conservatives see it differently, however. They point to Santorum's votes for special budget earmarks and increased federal spending to argue that he's not much different from the other candidates. And if that's the case, they say, then voters may want to unify behind the candidate they think is closest to winning and being able to defeat Barack Obama.

"You have a loyalty to whoever is winning," said David Hale, head of the Rockford Tea Party. "That's what's happening with Romney."

A Chicago Tribune poll, conducted before Santorum's most recent wins, found Romney leading 35 percent to 31 percent - within the poll's 4-point margin of error. Gingrich was favored by 12 percent and Paul by 7 percent.

A more recent poll for Fox Chicago News found Romney ahead 37 percent to 31 percent. The poll's margin of error was 2.2 percent, but it was conducted by an automated system instead of human questioners. Many experts consider that less reliable.

Santorum's biggest successes have come in conservative states, particularly the rural areas.

In Alabama, for instance, four out of five GOP voters consider themselves evangelical or born-again Christians, exit polling showed. The number was just half that in Illinois' 2008 Republican primary, and only 1 in 5 voters came from towns of 50,000 or less.

Big turnout in Santorum's strongest areas could make the difference.

A check of the areas where Brady ran strongest in the governor's race showed no evidence of a surge. Early voting and requests for absentee ballots were down from the past two elections. In west-central Adams County, as an example, 620 people had voted early or gotten absentee ballots as of early last week, compared with 978 two years ago and 1,380 in 2008.

Santorum can take consolation from some similar numbers in Romney territory. DuPage County in Chicago's suburbs reported a combined 13,214 early and absentee votes, down 12.5 percent from two years ago and 35 percent from four years ago. Registration there also was down.

Early campaign donations also reveal no sign of widespread Santorum support. He had raised less than $96,000 from Illinois, compared to $1.9 million for Romney, according to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics as of March 5.

Fifty-four delegates are at stake in Tuesday's voting, which Illinois handles differently from most other states.

First, people vote on the presidential candidate they prefer. This is often called the "beauty contest" because it's about popularity but has no real impact. Delegates are actually chosen in another, separate vote. In each congressional district, voters will see lists of delegates pledged to the various candidates. Voters choose the delegates they want and whoever is elected goes to the Republican convention.

Santorum starts out with a handicap. His campaign did not place delegates on the ballot in some congressional districts. Even if he were to win every district in Illinois, the best he could do is pick up 44 of the 54 delegates.

His campaign says that's not a major problem because three of the districts are in the Chicago area and probably wouldn't have gone to Santorum anyway. The spot where it could hurt most is a central Illinois district with three delegates that Santorum might have won.

Most Republicans agree that their top priority is defeating Obama and not simply nominating their preferred candidate. Romney's Illinois campaign chairman, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, happily seizes on that idea.

"I believe Gov. Romney is the best person to put together a coalition that can actually be successful in November," Rutherford said.

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