WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney's methodical march to the Republican presidential nomination got a huge, possibly decisive, boost Tuesday as he scored an overwhelming victory in the Illinois presidential primary.
National news organizations declared Romney the winner less than 1 hour after polls closed, based on early returns and exit surveys.
Romney had 46.7 percent of the vote with 99 percent of precincts reporting. Rick Santorum, former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania, had 35 percent. Trailing were Texas Rep. Ron Paul with 9.3 percent and Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, with 8 percent.
Primary voters who said the economy was the top issue preferred Romney, according to exit polls, and those who said their vote hinged on who could best beat President Barack Obama heavily favored Romney.
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Romney, speaking to a post-primary rally in Schamburg, Illinois, framed the contrast between himself and Obama.
“It’s time to say these words — this word: Enough," Romney insisted. "We know our future is better and brighter than these troubled times. We still believe in America — and we deserve a president who believes in us."
Later, speaking to a crowd in Gettysburg, Pa., his home state which holds a primary crucial to his hopes on April 24, Santorum targeted Romney: "This is an election about not who's the best person to manage Washington, or manage the economy. We don't need a manager," he said. “We need somebody who’s going to pull up government by the roots ... and liberate the private sector in America.”
Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, started the night with a huge advantage over Santorum, his closest rival, in delegates to August's Republican National Convention — 522-252, according to the Associated Press. Gingrich and Paul were far behind, with 136 and 50, respectively.
Romney’s Illinois victory was impressive in its sweep. Ballots in 25 of the state's 110 jurisdictions were too large, delaying the vote count. Gingrich ran so far behind despite waging an energetic campaign that questions were raised as to whether he would drop out. Santorum had hoped to maintain momentum from his victories a week ago in Mississippi and Alabama, but fell far short in the large Midwestern industrial state.
Romney had tried, as he has elsewhere, to raise doubts about Santorum by relentlessly running ads claiming that the challenger is an “economic lightweight” and “Washington politician.” He outspent Santorum by an estimated 7 to 1 in the state.
Romney also had a strong ground game. Illinois voters cast two kinds of votes for president Tuesday. They chose a candidate, and voted separately for individual convention delegates. Because Romney delegates are listed at the top of ballots, and usually are well-known local names, he had instant advantages, reflecting his strong campaign organization. His campaign is run by a group of seasoned state Republicans headed by Treasurer Dan Rutherford.
Romney’s goal was not only to win Illinois, but also to win big. In the past month, he's won two “must win” Midwestern industrial states, Michigan and Ohio, but only by slim margins. Illinois seemed friendlier turf, if only because centrists are more prevalent. The state has a history of embracing center-right Republicans such as former House of Representatives Minority Leader Bob Michel and Speaker Dennis Hastert, and Sens. Everett Dirksen, Charles Percy and Mark Kirk.
Romney tried hard to appeal to that audience. On Monday, he gave what was billed as a major economic speech in which he drew sharp contrasts between himself and President Barack Obama.
“I am running for president because I have the experience and the vision to get us out of this mess. I am offering a real choice and a new beginning,” he said. “And I have a conservative economic plan that will deliver more jobs, less debt and smaller government.”
In that address, Romney not only was trying to cast himself as presidential, but also to stoke voter turnout. Voters have shown little passion for him, raising concerns in the Romney camp that his backers might stay home.
“Romney is winning most of those preoccupied with the economy, as he has better credentials as someone who understands economics,” said Brian Gaines, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois.
Romney was expected to add substantially to his delegate total; 1,144 are needed to win the nomination, and 54 were at stake Tuesday.
"When you go up to 30,000 feet and look at the rest of the Republicans, you see how Romney will be close to 1,144 when this is over," said Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
The calendar, Sabato said, eventually works in Romney's favor. The next stop, though, is Louisiana's primary Saturday, and Romney hasn’t done well in the Deep South. Santorum and Gingrich are waging vigorous campaigns there. Both are expected to do well Saturday.
But then come Maryland, Wisconsin and the District of Columbia on April 3. Maryland and Washington Republicans tend to be moderate, which favors Romney. He plans to campaign Wednesday in Arbutus, Md., a blue-collar Baltimore suburb.
Wisconsin's GOP voters, while showing more conservative tendencies in recent years, are similar to those in other Midwest states such as Michigan and Ohio, which Romney won.
After those contests comes a break until April 24, when Romney-friendly Eastern states weigh in: New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware. Also voting will be Pennsylvania, Santorum’s home state and a must-win for him, Sabato said, but he lost his 2006 bid for a third Senate term there by 18 points.
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