Mitt Romney won the Illinois primary convincingly Tuesday, with networks calling his victory within an hour of polls closing. Rick Santorum, his chief rival for the nomination, is expected to easily take second place.
With more than 60% of the votes counted, Romney was taking 47.7% of the total versus 34.5% for Santorum, 9.1% for Ron Paul, and just 7.7% for Newt Gingrich.
As has been his practice in recent weeks, Romney focused his entire election night speech on attacking President Obama, never even alluding to any of his rivals now lagging well behind his delegate total.
“The simple truth is that this president doesn’t understand the genius of America’s economy or the secret of the American economic success story,” Romney said. “The American economy is fueled by freedom.”
He contrasted his experience as a private equity investor with Obama’s career before politics, dismissing the president’s work in education, law, and activism as insufficient preparation for repairing the economy.
“You can’t learn that teaching constitutional law at University of Chicago,” Romney said. “You can’t even learn that as a community organizer.”
Santorum used his speech to accuse his top rivals of being insufficiently conservative and consistent, noting he was the most resistent to the overwhelming scientific consensus on climate change of the three.
“This is an election abut not who’s the best person to manage Washington or manage the economy,” he said. “We dont need a manager, we need someone who’s going to pull up government by its roots and do something to liberate the private sector in America.”
It’s not all good news for Romney. The run-up to Illinois demonstrated surprising cracks in Romney’s campaign — typically considered the most solid and competent — in the long primary. Reports over the suggested revealed Romney’s campaign in Illinois was as disorganized as Santorum’s — not a good sign for an operation that will need to make a quick pivot to the general election against President Obama’s incredibly efficient campaign. Romney also vastly outspent his chief rival and conducted ran a very negative campaign, the kind of thing that doesn’t do much for his Republican enthusiasm problem.
Still, Romney’s strong performance has to be encouraging to the campaign as it enters a critical stretch in the calendar. From here, Romney has only a narrow window to quickly dispel lingering doubt among the GOP electorate and establishment that he’s the presumptive nominee or the contest could drag on for months. The next state on the calendar, Louisiana, heavily favors Santorum. Romney’s best bet is to try to score a strong win in Wisconsin on April 3, where early polls show Santorum in the lead, then ride that momentum to strong performances in a group of Northeast states on April 24 that includes New York, Delaware, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania. Santorum’s campaign has, surprisingly, raised its public expectations in these states in recent comments, but Romney will be heavily favored in all but Santorum’s native Pennsylvania, where a win could be a key credibility boost for the frontrunner.
“If Romney were to win Pennsylvania, it would grievously wound the case for Santorum to continue as a legitimate threat,” GOP strategist Matt Mackowiak, who is unaligned, told TPM.
Romney will need nothing short of a truly dominant performance to knock out Santorum early thanks to a schedule that quickly becomes a lot more conservative and Southern, with contests in West Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana on May 8 and several other Santorum-friendly states en route to a showdown in Texas at the end of the month. Unless the momentum shifts in Romney’s direction fast, it’s easy to imagine the Republican primary still competitive all the way through June. President Obama, currently sitting on a nearly $85 million campaign war chest, would surely be happy with that development.
While Santorum lost Illinois, Gingrich looked set to turn in an extremely weak performance. Coupled with Newt’s latest FEC report, which shows his campaign raising an anemic $2.6 million in February while holding more debt than cash versus a $9 million haul gain for Santorum and $11.5 million for Romney, the results put more pressure on him to step aside. If that happens, Romney could have his hands full containing a trove of newly freed conservative voters who could potentially benefit Santorum.