Will Romney settle GOP race with a big win in Illinois?

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 18, 2012 

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — Mitt Romney needs to win the Illinois Republican presidential primary Tuesday.

Sure, he's way ahead in delegates to the Republican National Convention. His ads seem to be everywhere on Chicago television and he's got a savvy organization led by big-name local politicians.

But the former Massachusetts governor has some serious hurdles to overcome: his own persona and an electorate so sick of politics that voters may not be motivated to cast a ballot for anyone.

Romney is having trouble erasing doubts that he's too stiff, too politically inept and too insensitive to constituents who confront gasoline prices over $4 a gallon every time they drive down a street.

He also faces voters frustrated that the economy is not improving quickly. The jobless rate in Illinois in January was 9.4 percent, down from its 11.4 percent peak two years ago but still well above the national average. And people here just witnessed the circus-like spectacle last week of an unrepentant former Gov. Rod Blagojevich heading to federal prison.

Concerned about Illinois, the Romney camp added weekend campaign stops and is spending millions on ads. They start with a built-in advantage — 54 convention delegates are at stake, but Rick Santorum only filed slates in 14 of the state's 18 congressional districts. That means he can only vie for 44 of the delegates.

The Romney folks see a major, and perhaps even decisive, win as a plus for his

candidacy, which has seen a string of victories that includes Florida, Ohio and Michigan.

But a loss would raise fresh questions about his political strength.

His biggest nemesis is Santorum, the former Pennsylvania senator, who's pushing hard for the votes of social conservatives in the Chicago suburbs and the state's smaller communities. A poll last week found him within striking distance of Romney.

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, drew decent crowds during a two-day swing in the Chicago suburbs. Though polls show him with scant support, he's planting doubts about Romney in voters' minds.

Ron Paul, a Texas congressman, is mobilizing another constituency: He attracted an estimated 4,000 people to a rally at the University of Illinois in Champaign.

Most worrisome of all for Romney is that people who seem logical supporters don't seem fired up.

They tend to be centrists, the kinds of moderate Republicans who elected a long roster of national GOP stars over the past decades — senators like Everett Dirksen and Charles Percy, and former House GOP leaders Bob Michel and Speaker Dennis Hastert.

But often today's moderates see Romney — a center-right governor of Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007 — trying to recast himself as a diehard conservative. That's an enthusiasm-killer among centrists; early voting turnout has lagged.

"He's the best candidate of what they have to offer, and he has a better chance against Obama," said Doris Haack, a retired teacher from Schamburg, a Chicago suburb. "But he needs to be more forceful, more outgoing."

Romney and his backers hotly dispute such impressions, arguing he's the most qualified candidate who deeply cares about his country — and has a detailed plan for action.

"I've actually run things," he told a tele-town hall Wednesday. "As you know, we elected three years ago a president who'd never run anything, and it hasn't worked out so well." Friday, during a visit to a Rosemont pancake house, he called Obama a "lightweight" on economic issues.

Romney's passion problem stems from two sources. One is his style, which many find wooden and distant.

"One word: Plastic," said Judy Thorne, a Mount Prospect retiree.

"I just have this feeling he won't get things done. He's a little bit of a pushover," added Madeline Mainzer, a Niles microbiologist. "He's too influenced by people too much, and doesn't really know what he hopes to do."

Romney's other dilemma involves the economy. Voters routinely quote his recent gaffes about his wife's two Cadillacs or his friendships with NASCAR or pro football team owners.

While the economy has begun to recover in this state, people remain uneasy.

Craig Ochoa, a Hanover Township highway commissioner, found that while the economy "may be changing for big manufacturers, for most people things aren't changing as much as they would like.

"That's the issue,' he said. "Most people couldn't tell you the difference between a conservative and a liberal."

Romney's rivals are trying hard to harness that worry and anger.

Santorum offers a populist message, one that demands less government and argues that the rights of Americans come from God.

At John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights on Friday, Santorum spoke to about 500 students, going through a litany that included his agreements with House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a protest against President Barack Obama's use of "elites" to run the country and a description of why regulations are often misguided.

He also played teacher, explaining how the Declaration of Independence is "a document that recognizes that rights to not come from the government. They come from God and are written on the hearts of every single person."

Santorum unquestionably stirs passion.

"He combines social and economic conservative messages. He's the candidate most like Ronald Reagan," said Frank Biga, an Arlington Heights high school teacher.

Brendan Appel, a Northbrook attorney calls him "the most principled conservative of the group."

Not all conservatives are on board. "Santorum scares me," said T. R. Smith, a Kane County board member. "At least with Gingrich he's been vetted, and nothing is going to come out that we don't know."

Romney is trying hard to raise doubts about Santorum. Turn on the television in the evening and the anti-Santorum ads seem everywhere. "Never run a business, never run a state," they say. Or "economic lightweight."

But will the Romney voters get fired up enough to show up?

"There is not a hot contest here," said Kenneth Janda, professor emeritus of political science at Northwestern University.

Romney is counting on the same kind of sensible centrists who have helped so many Republicans in this state launch him to victory.

"We're very much media-driven, and we are often attracted to the candidate with all the fancy words," said Phyllis Pickett, a retired Schamburg teacher. "But Romney is a solid person who will take the country in the right direction."

Then again, said John Alexis, a Huntley web site designer, "Romney's just not really connecting with me. He just says what he has to say."

MORE FROM MCCLATCHY

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Can Santorum take battle all the way to convention?

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