Same story, different state.
Mitt Romney has a roster of blue chip GOP supporters here, more resources and a superior organization in a state that seems a good fit to his brand of Republicanism.
And, yet again, on primary eve Illinois remains in play, with Rick Santorum seemingly within striking distance and the former Massachusetts governor’s local supporters more nervous than they should be about Tuesday’s outcome.
Bob Michel, the former House GOP Leader who served 19 terms in Congress representing Peoria, acknowledged that Romney has thus far failed to generate sufficient excitement to deliver a convincing knockout blow to Santorum in Illinois.
“He’s not overwhelming, that’s the problem through the whole damn primary,” said Michel, who backed Romney both in 2008 and again this cycle. “What’s the spark? What’s the thing that gets him off and running? No one knows.”
Romney’s inability to lock down the Republican vote in the most populous of the Midwestern states is exemplified by former GOP Gov. Jim Edgar’s ambivalence toward him.
The two-term former Illinois governor should be in Romney’s sweet spot — a pro-business Republican who held statewide office for 18 years and sometimes faced trouble from more orthodox conservatives.
But instead of backing Romney, Edgar is sitting out a Republican presidential race, he said, for the first time since getting into elective politics.
“Romney just doesn’t get folks real excited,” Edgar told POLITICO. “It seems like he can get about 33 percent and just about hovers there.”
A moderate in the tradition of successful statewide Republicans dating from Everett Dirksen to Thompson to Sen. Mark Kirk, Edgar said Romney’s tack to the right on a range of issues since becoming a national candidate leaves him vulnerable of blurring the lines between himself and Santorum.
In a state without formal party affiliation, where voters choose one party’s primary ballot at their precinct, Edgar said Romney may have cost himself support by wooing the GOP’s most conservative voters.
“If he keeps moving to the right, I think he might be losing some people who are saying he’s not a whole lot different than Santorum,” Edgar said. “If Romney was kind of running with his governor of Massachusetts image, then he might get some Democrats and independents to come in and help him. But today, I don’t know.”
Romney’s Illinois team — which has long expected to win Illinois — now has him campaigning here like a candidate scared. A Chicago Tribune/WGN poll taken March 7-9 showed Romney’s lead over Santorum at four percentage points, with Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul far behind, though a Public Policy Polling automated survey released Sunday evening gave Romney a more comfortable 15-point edge.
On Sunday, a Romney adviser said the campaign expects to win the state, “so long as turnout doesn’t tank.”
In recent days, the campaign added to the schedule events in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont on Friday and in downstate Edwardsville Saturday. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was flown in for a Friday rally in Elmhurst and the campaign organized a conference call to trash Rick Santorum as “a Republican version of President Obama,” in the words of surrogate John Sununu, who said the campaign added Illinois events because Romney was running so strong in Puerto Rico, where he won the primary easily Sunday.
The campaign on Friday also released a statewide TV advisement that crushes Santorum’s plans on the economy, calling it “economic illiteracy.”
Romney echoed that line of attack at a pancake restaurant here when he said the party is “not going be successful in replacing an economic lightweight if we nominate an economic lightweight.”
Former Gov. Jim Thompson, another Romney endorser, questioned whether that approach was short-sighted.
“I wish he would stop attacking Gingrich and Santorum,” said Thompson, who was elected statewide four times. “I heard Romney calling Santorum the other day ‘an economic lightweight.’ I don’t see what purpose that serves. You’re going to want the Santorum and Gingrich voters to be with you in the fall.”
Rep. Aaron Schock, a downstate Romney surrogate who represents Michel’s old congressional district, dismissed the criticism of the former governors, noting that state’s current roster of GOP leaders — among them Kirk and a host of other congressmen and state legislative leaders — is on board with Romney’s approach.
“Because somebody who served in office 20 years ago might have a criticism, that doesn’t matter,” Schock said. “I think he’s doing great among elected officials who know what it takes to run and win in Illinois now.”
Still, he said, “obviously this is a race so everybody is all hands on deck.”
For all his establishment support — which also includes former House Speaker Dennis Hastert — Romney hasn’t had the benefit of campaigning with any easily recognizable, current Republican statewide officeholders. Elsewhere, he’s had Gov. Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Attorney General Pam Bondi in Florida, Sen. Rob Portman in Ohio, and Gov. Phil Bryant in Mississippi. But there aren’t that many boldface GOP names in Illinois anymore, and Kirk is currently rehabilitating from a January stroke at a Chicago hospital.
The campaign’s lead local surrogate and chairman, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, rescinded a challenge to Santorum’s delegate slates in 10 congressional districts, even though Santorum’s campaign did not file enough signatures to qualify for the ballot and would have otherwise been disqualified, according to the Daily Herald of Arlington Heights.
A Romney adviser said the campaign’s Boston headquarters was aware of the situation but deferred to Rutherford, who was elected in 2010. He declined requests for comment at Romney’s Friday event and his office did not return phone messages. Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said only that the campaign “decided against” challenging Santorum’s delegate petitions. She did not elaborate.
Despite Santorum’s own organizational shortcomings here, the former Pennsylvania senator’s ragtag operation is expressing confidence it can win a popular vote victory.
“I’m visualizing a little check next to Rick Santorum’s name with the backdrop of the state of Illinois,” said Al Salvi, the former Pennsylvania senator’s honorary state co-chairman who was the GOP nominee for Senate in 1996 and secretary of state in 1998. “That would be a huge victory for us, it would be a huge psychological boost and it would give us momentum going into the future.”
Santorum’s Illinois director, Jon Zahm — whose his p.r. firm is named Goliath Slayer Communications — said he’s planning a big election eve surprise: At a Monday rally in Dixon, Ronald Reagan’s boyhood home, five Gingrich delegate candidates will announce they are switching their allegiances to Santorum.
For Santorum, who’s unlikely to defeat Romney on delegates, it’s more of a morale-booster than anything else.
Illinois is the first state on the calendar in which delegates are elected directly, which hands Romney another significant advantage.
Not only is Santorum missing delegate slates in four of the state’s 18 congressional districts, he faces the challenge of running political no-names as his delegate candidates — a sure sign of trouble in a state where delegates are on the ballot and familiar names have an edge.
Romney’s delegate slate features Rutherford and Ethan Hastert, the son of the former House speaker, as well as mayors and current and former state legislators.
“When you go in and you vote and you see some of these state reps and these big names as delegates,” Salvi conceded, “if you see a name who you like and respect, you might punch that when it comes time to vote for the delegates.”
To that end, Rutherford and Romney have been reminding crowds across the state not to just vote for him, but also to choose his delegates, whom he reminded were right in front of him.
“We need to get out there and vote for my delegates,” Romney said Friday in Rosemont. “We’ve got delegates in every district in the state…I need you all to vote for them.”