Drifting Right, Illinois Is Test for Romney
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CHICAGO -- Illinois has been known for choosing Republicans of a moderate brand, in the mold of James R. Thompson, the state's longest serving governor, or Mark Steven Kirk, the United States senator elected in 2010. So for Mitt Romney, who has had to defend himself against the moderate label elsewhere, a primary here -- with its large prize of delegates and the symbolism of President Obama's backyard -- would seem a welcome, natural fit.
And yet, while Mr. Romney has a crucial strategic advantage for gaining delegates on Tuesday and an overwhelming list of establishment Republicans on his side, Illinois is not shaping up to be the effortless romp some had presumed. A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll showed Mr. Romney ahead of Rick Santorum, but only by 4 percentage points, within the margin of sampling error.
Mr. Romney swept through the state on Sunday from Moline, on the western edge, to the Chicago suburbs before spending the night in Springfield. He has placed enough importance on Illinois to spend four days here leading up to the primary.
He and his allies are also greatly outspending his rivals, with one voter reporting receiving three recorded calls from Romney forces in a single day. Mr. Santorum spent Saturday in the state and will return Monday for a full day of campaigning.
Some Republicans say this state's political inclinations are simply shifting, giving a more conservative bloc a far louder voice and leaving them wondering whether that old Illinois stalwart, the middle-of-the-road Republican, is obsolete.
Republicans in the state certainly have cause for excitement -- this is the first Illinois primary in decades that could significantly influence who becomes the presidential nominee. But Mr. Romney also seems to be struggling here with something he has battled everywhere: a failure, voters say, to thrill.
"Mitt Romney is a sound individual and a good businessman, but from a sheer lovability or enthusiasm standpoint, he's not the world's most gregarious guy," said Kirk Dillard, a longtime Republican state senator who has not committed to any particular candidate as he did in other years, like 2008, when he ran as a delegate for Senator John McCain. "That's not to say there's anything wrong with that. Maybe that's what we need right now."
Jim Edgar, a former Republican governor who also fits the state's classic moderate model, has chosen to hold back from making an endorsement in the presidential race even though he has always done so in the past. He said he had reservations about some positions of each of the candidates, but of Mr. Romney, he noted, "I haven't detected, down in the ranks, that kind of enthusiasm," adding, "There just doesn't yet seem to be the interest."
The densest Republican territory in this state falls outside Chicago -- in the swelling suburban counties that form a collar around the city and in the wide open, sometimes corn-filled stretches south of Interstate 80, an east-west road that splits Chicago and the state's northern cap from everything else. Mr. Romney is expected to draw strength from Chicago's suburbs, while Mr. Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul have been popular downstate, where conservatives are concentrated.
Still uncertain: who will show up to vote in larger numbers -- the state's conservative wing, which says it is far more fired up about this campaign, or its more traditional moderates, people like Mike Kenyon, chairman of the Republican Central Committee in suburban Kane County, who had this to say on Mr. Romney's behalf: "Can you find anything bad about him?"
Illinois has been battered in the struggling economy. The unemployment rate -- 9.4 percent in January -- is higher than the national average and the worst of any state in the Midwest, including Michigan. Meanwhile, the state has had its own budget woes, including unpaid bills and a woefully underfinanced pension plan.
All that may benefit Mr. Romney's campaign, given his background -- a fact that Mr. Romney's strongest supporters are quick to point out. "You need someone with business strengths," said Tom Cross, the minority leader in the Illinois House of Representatives, who is backing Mr. Romney. "This is going to be about the economy, you know."
Yet this is a state so deeply different from one end to the other that Mr. Romney's background may also damage him.
"I'm tired of rich guys running for office because it's a mountain to be climbed for them," said Tony Libri, chairman of the Sangamon County Republican Central Committee, in central Illinois, who said he had yet to decide who he will vote for but expects that Mr. Romney will ultimately be the nominee. "He probably spends more on a shirt or a haircut than most Americans make in a week. I want a guy who can roll up his sleeves and talk about being on the front lines in Afghanistan or being a welder on a factory floor."
For decades, Illinois's simple model for a successful, statewide Republican candidate -- moderate, especially on social issues -- seemed to hold. But tension has long simmered among those who favored a more conservative approach. Signs of a shift within the party appeared as early as 1996, when Al Salvi -- now Mr. Santorum's honorary co-chairman in Illinois -- defeated a lieutenant governor for the Republican nomination for a United States Senate seat. (Mr. Salvi went on to lose in a general election to Richard J. Durbin, the Democrat who still holds the seat.)
More recently, with rising frustration over the economy, the tension has boiled over here.
"The advent of the Tea Party has really changed the dynamics of the party in Illinois," said Jon Zahm, the state director of Mr. Santorum's campaign. "The old story just isn't so anymore."
Ordinary voters spoke of their own evolutions.
"Because of the direction our country is going, I've moved more to the right," said Linda Givilancz, who said she considered herself a proud Tea Party supporter who will vote for Mr. Gingrich on Tuesday. She said she had shifted significantly after 2008, and particularly after the passage of the health care bill. "That's when I said, 'Holy cow, there's something drastically wrong.' "
Even if Mr. Santorum were to upset the presumptions and the polls and win the state's so-called beauty contest on one part of the ballot, he could not sweep the delegates. He starts with a major disadvantage, a shaky sign of his team's organizing abilities in Illinois. While 54 delegates are at stake on Tuesday, Mr. Santorum is the only candidate among the four who will be competing for only 44 of them.
In three of the state's 18 Congressional districts, Mr. Santorum's allies failed to line up delegates by the deadline, and in a fourth district -- in what Mr. Salvi described as a "crazy situation" and Mr. Zahm described as "human error" by a volunteer -- petitions for delegates were ready to be filed but were inadvertently thrown out instead.
If Democrats in this, Mr. Obama's adopted home state, sound especially passionate about him, Republicans here seem that much more disturbed by his tenure, as if proximity has carried a special sting. Whatever the outcome on Tuesday, Republican say, one thing is certain: they will eagerly unite around the nominee -- thrilled or not.
"I would vote for a dog just to get Obama out," Charles Falk, 74, said at a Lincoln Day dinner for Republicans in Palatine, where Mr. Gingrich appeared and spoke. Come November, Mr. Obama is expected to glide to victory in Illinois, so Tuesday may be the last anyone here sees of a Republican presidential candidate for another long while.
Steven Yaccino contributed reporting from Chicago, and Jeff Zeleny from Moline, Ill.
First Published March 19, 2012 12:01 am