Mitt Romney is the winner of Tuesday’s Republican presidential primary in Illinois, a victory that widened his lead over his chief rival for the nomination and will likely provide a jolt of energy to his campaign. In a contest that had whittled down to a head-to-head match-up between the two frontrunners, the former Massachusetts governor was leading Rick Santorum by more than 12 points. The results will likely renew questions about Santorum’s viability and prompt Romney to more forcefully embrace the rhetoric of a general election candidate.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul was in a distant third in the race with 9 percent of the vote, followed by former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who garnered 7 percent.
In his victory speech Tuesday, Romney sounded very much the part of a general election candidate, focusing his criticism on President Obama and speaking in grand language about his vision for the country. “After years of too many apologies and not enough jobs, historic drops in income and historic highs in gas prices, a president who doesn’t hesitate to use all the means necessary to force through Obamacare on the American public but leads from behind in the world, it’s time to say ... enough,” Romney said. “We know our future is brighter than these troubled times. We still believe in America and we deserve a President who believes in us.”
Despite the solid victory for Romney, who has eeked out more modest wins elsewhere in the Midwest, the contest is unlikely to dramatically shake up the basic geometry of the race. Though Illinois is a major prize for Romney, who will claim the majority of the state’s 54 delegates, the victory does not close the door on Rick Santorum, who will also win a portion of those delegates and has vowed to soldier on.
Speaking from Gettysburg, Penn., Tuesday night, Santorum argued that he is the only Republican candidate who remains true to his values, and promised to close the delegate gap by winning Louisiana’s primary on Saturday and then focusing on Pennsylvania, a delegate-rich state that holds its primary April 24. “We’re feeling very, very good about winning Louisiana,” Santorum told a room full of supporters. “We’re heading to Louisiana for the rest of the week, and then we’re going to be back here in Pennsylvania, and we’re going to pick up a whole boatload of delegates and close this gap and on to victory.”
Santorum is hoping for a revival in Louisiana with the help of evangelical Christian voters there. The race then moves on to Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia, which all vote on April 3. On Wednesday, Romney is scheduled to hold a town hall meeting in Arbutus, Md.
Despite the increasingly acrimonious tone of the race, exit polls showed that Republican voters in Illinois were not eager to see it end. About two-thirds of those who cast ballots Tuesday responded that they wanted to see their candidate prevail, even if it means the race will go on for months.
Earlier Tuesday, Santorum’s advisers tried to argue that he is not lagging by as many Republican National Convention delegates as media reports make it seem, and that he will bounce back with the help of his passionate supporters and a freshly built national organization. While the Associated Press’s delegate tally, which many news organizations rely on, showed Santorum 268 delegates behind Romney prior to the Illinois contest, Santorum’s advisers argued in a conference call that the race was much closer.
Santorum spokesman Hogan Gidley said the campaign believes the delegate counts from AP and other media outlets are “way off base." Their analysis was based on their strength in caucus states, where projections about the winner are based on a symbolic straw poll, but actual delegates are awarded through a complex process that rewards a strong organization.
Critics, however, said their argument was an unlikely, best-case scenario for the former Pennsylvania senator.
Santorum appears to have fared well outside of the Chicago. Those areas have significant numbers of evangelical Christian voters, who made up about 43 percent of the overall Illinois electorate, according to the preliminary exit polls. Romney’s toughest primary fights have come in states with a large proportion of evangelical voters, who have overwhelmingly preferred Santorum or former House speaker Newt Gingrich.
By the same token, Santorum has struggled with suburban voters. Romney’s heaviest support appears to have come from the so-called "collar counties" around Chicago, as well as Cook County. Romney spent heavily on advertising in the Chicago area; his campaign and a super PAC supporting him outspent Santorum 7-to-1 statewide on the airwaves.
The early exit polls painted a picture of an electorate that is slightly more conservative than it was four years ago, and largely pessimistic about the nation’s economic recovery. While some voters said they believed the economy is getting better, more than twice as many said it was getting worse. About a third said the economy is holding steady.
Illinois’ 9.4 percent unemployment rate in January was much higher than the 8.3 percent rate nationally. More than half of voters singled out the economy as the election’s top issue, and nearly four in 10 picked the ability to beat President Obama in November as their top priority in a candidate.
Gingrich campaigned in Illinois but lagged in recent polls. On Tuesday, his campaign confirmed that it had slid into debt, raising about $2.6 million in February but spending about $2.8 million.
Gingrich has moved on to Louisiana, where he held two meet-and-greets Tuesday in advance of Saturday’s primary there. Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.) is scheduled to appear on the “Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.
Romney spent the day in Chicago, attending a luncheon fundraiser and touring Google’s offices downtown. He met with employees and held an online forum at Google, taking a series of questions and mostly sticking to his campaign talking points.
The weather in the Chicago area was an unseasonably warm 80 degrees and sunny, and pleasant weather often portends heavier voter turnout. But was that what local officials were seeing?
“No,” said David Orr, the Cook County clerk, who spent the morning visiting polling stations. “I think what it means is that the people who are working the polls are thrilled, and especially the people who are working outside who are used to being freezing on election day are thrilled.”
Staff writers Aaron Blake and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.