CHICAGO — As the Republican presidential contest moves to Illinois, Mitt Romney finds his campaign parked squarely at the corner of perception and reality.
The perception: despite massive spending and a broad-based organization, Romney has failed to seal the deal with Republicans, most recently after finishing third in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday. He struggles with a conservative GOP core that doesn't trust him from his tenure as governor of liberal Massachusetts.
The reality: Romney holds a 2-to-1 lead over Rick Santorum in the convention-nominating delegate count and he will continue to amass more delegates as long as the former Pennsylvania senator and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich split the conservative, anti-Romney vote.
Underscoring the importance of next Tuesday's Illinois primary, where 54 delegates are at stake, Romney has moved up plans to campaign here, making his first visit Friday instead of waiting until Monday.
With Illinois, Romney again faces a critical battle in a state that once seemed assuredly his. A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll showed Romney with a slight edge over Santorum but within the survey's margin of error. Like Michigan and Ohio before it, the moderate suburban dynamic of Illinois — where most of the state's Republican voters live — could benefit Romney and propel him toward the nomination.
But today's Illinois GOP is not what it used to be. A strain of conservatism that for decades had yielded to a Republican organization built by moderates has taken strong root. And despite Illinois playing a leading role in a Republican nomination contest for the first time in decades, there are questions whether turnout Tuesday will be significant.
On Wednesday, only 70 people greeted Gingrich, the first of the four remaining candidates to try to plant a flag in Illinois, at a welcoming event at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont.