Bloomberg News

Romney-Santorum Duel Tests GOP in Obama’s State

March 15, 2012

Republican presidential candidates, Rick Santorum, left, and Mitt Romney at a debate on Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Arizona. Photographer: Ross D. Franklin/AP

Republican presidential candidates, Rick Santorum, left, and Mitt Romney at a debate on Feb. 22, 2012, in Mesa, Arizona. Photographer: Ross D. Franklin/AP

In Illinois, long a domain for mainstream Republican politicians, Mitt Romney counts on strong support for his party’s presidential nomination.

Yet the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, who has carried other major Midwestern industrial states in the party’s 2012 primaries by 1- and 3-percentage-point margins, faces another close contest with rival Rick Santorum in the March 20 Illinois primary, a poll shows.

The Illinois race presents a pattern similar to the contest in Ohio, where Santorum trailed Romney by 1 point faring well in rural areas while Romney won urban and suburban regions. And, emerging from two Southern primaries where Santorum defeated Romney on March 13, Romney finds himself renewing his appeal to his party’s socially conservative base, voters who alight to Santorum’s appeal on concerns such as abortion and contraception.

“I know the term ‘establishment’ frightens people,” Romney said in a conference call with Illinois voters yesterday between fundraisers in the New York City area. To allay such concerns, he pointed to his endorsements from Republican leaders with strong conservative credentials, including Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia and former Attorney General John Ashcroft.

‘Perhaps the Guy’s OK’

Their backing should “give a pretty good indication that, ‘Perhaps the guy’s OK,’” Romney said of himself. He brushed aside questions about his ability to appeal to Southern Republicans in an interview yesterday with Fox News.

“Some who are very conservative may not be yet in my camp, but they will be when I become the nominee,” he said.

Unlike Ohio, where the larger cities are scattered, the majority of the Illinois population and Republican vote is centered in the Chicago metropolitan area. While the area’s Chicago core is deeply Democratic -- home to President Barack Obama, his re-election team, and a father and son with the last name of Daley who ran Chicago for more than four decades combined -- many of the suburbs around the city lean Republican.

A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll released over the weekend showed Romney and Santorum locked in a tight race statewide. Romney was backed by 35 percent of likely voters and Santorum by 31 percent, within the 4-percentage-point margin of error.

Suburban-Rural Split

The survey, taken before Santorum’s latest wins in the Mississippi and Alabama primaries, showed 16 percent of Illinois’ likely Republican voters were undecided and 46 percent said they might change their minds. It also revealed that Romney is doing better in the suburbs around Chicago, while Santorum holds the advantage outside the state’s largest metropolitan area.

The arrival in Illinois of a Republican presidential campaign for something other than fundraising is unusual.

The state’s primary is typically late enough not to matter much. It last played a significant role on the Republican side in 1988, when then-Senator Bob Dole of Kansas was dealt a significant blow by losing Illinois to then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. That year also marked the last general election in which Illinois backed a Republican for president, so the party typically doesn’t make a play for the state.

Senator John McCain of Arizona won the Illinois Republican primary in 2008 and went on to become the party’s nominee.

High Expectations

Romney, 65, a former private equity executive, plans a brief campaign stop in Rosemont, Illinois, tomorrow morning before flying to Puerto Rico, which holds its primary on March 18.

Expectations are high for Romney in Illinois, considering his campaign cash advantage and his backing by many of the state’s top Republicans, including Senator Mark Kirk and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford. Following the close margins by which Romney defeated Santorum in Michigan and Ohio, a victory in Illinois would be significant for momentum in the race.

Illinois offers 69 of the 1,144 delegates needed to win the party’s nomination. The state’s voters will directly elect 54 of those delegates.

As was the case in Ohio, Santorum failed to file a full slate of delegates, so he is only qualified for as many as 44 of those chosen. Romney, former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Representative Ron Paul of Texas qualified for the full contingent.

Gingrich Defiance

Romney and Santorum, 53, still must contend with a third factor here: A defiant Gingrich has arrived in Illinois following dual second-place finishes in the Southern states that were supposed to be part of his base. Facing questions about whether his candidacy is sustainable, he said he is “staying in this race” as he spoke to about 75 supporters in suburban Chicago in a room that could have easily held three times as many people. He repeated the same language a few hours later at a party dinner in another suburb.

Gingrich, 68, declined to answer any questions from reporters following his first event of the day held near O’Hare International Airport. He has won only two primaries so far, South Carolina and Georgia, a state he represented in Congress for 20 years.

Santorum, who strengthened his status as Romney’s prime challenger in the Republican contest by winning in Alabama and Mississippi, faces his next major challenge in the Illinois primary.

Santorum’s Push

The former Pennsylvania senator wants to drive Gingrich from the race to consolidate opposition to Romney, who leads in the hunt for delegates to the party’s national convention in August.

“If we keep winning races, eventually people are going to figure out that Governor Romney is not going to be the nominee,” Santorum told reporters yesterday in San Juan, according to the Associated Press.

Romney also addressed Gingrich’s campaign in his Illinois conference call.

“You’ll find he’s an economic lightweight,” Romney said. “Not having ever spent any time in the private sector, he really doesn’t understand fundamentally what it takes to make this economy grow and thrive.”

Santorum is scheduled to visit Illinois tomorrow and campaign in the state over the weekend, after stopping in Missouri where caucuses will also be held this weekend.

Delegate Hunt

Even amid state losses, Romney has continued to bank delegates in a process his aides say could drag on two more months. He has 495 delegates, including endorsements from Republican Party leaders who automatically attend and can vote for anyone, compared with 252 for Santorum and 131 for Gingrich, according to AP estimates. Paul has 48.

Illinois (BEESIL) poses economic challenges for the candidates similar to those in Michigan and Ohio.

Illinois’ unemployment rate of 9.4 percent is higher than the national average of 8.3 percent, and higher than those in Ohio and Michigan. The state also has budget and pension shortfalls even after raising income and corporate taxes last year, and it has the nation’s lowest general-obligation bond rating, according to Moody’s Investors Service.

Gingrich’s future depends upon the intentions of his major donors, said Mike George, a Texas entrepreneur who has invested more than $200,000 in the former speaker’s presidential bid. George was referring to Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas casino billionaire who with his family has given at least $11 million to Winning Our Future, a political action committee backing him.

$10 Million Checks

The key for the candidate is “how long will Sheldon continue writing these $10 million checks,” George said in an interview yesterday on Bloomberg Television. “It’s all in his hands.”

Adelson spokesman Ron Reese didn’t return calls or e-mails seeking comment.

Rick Tyler, a senior adviser for Winning Our Future, said Adelson’s checks are less important under a new strategy of making it to the convention rather than winning state-by-state.

“The dynamics have changed, and all four candidates will arrive in Tampa on equal footing,” he said in a telephone interview yesterday. “Nobody plans to go into the convention in third, but this is our new reality.”

Republicans and independents who lean that way are divided over whether Gingrich and Paul should drop out so that a two- person contest between Romney and Santorum could emerge, according to a Bloomberg National Poll published this week.

Ad Spending

A political action committee backing Romney is already active on Illinois television, according to data from New York- based Kantar Media’s CMAG, which tracks advertising.

Restore Our Future, a super-PAC, has spent an estimated $700,830 to air ads 997 times on broadcast television in the state through March 13. Those figures don’t include advertising run in television markets on the state’s borders.

Gingrich’s arrival in the state yesterday competed with something that drew more attention: the last day of freedom for the state’s former governor, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, who is heading to prison following his conviction of federal corruption charges.

Obama isn’t leaving his home state unattended during the final days of campaigning before the primary. He plans to attend two fundraisers tomorrow in Chicago for his re-election bid.

To contact the reporter on this story: John McCormick in Chicago at jmccormick16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Jeanne Cummings at jcummings21@bloomberg.net


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