By Rick Pearson, John Byrne and Dahleen Glanton
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.
After a pair of second-place finishes the day before in Gingrich's home region in the South raised questions about his campaign's continued viability, he declared, "I am staying in this race." The candidate vowed to continue on until the Republican National Convention in August. "I look forward to getting to Tampa with your help," said Gingrich, who later spoke to about 450 at a dinner in Palatine.
Romney campaigned in Missouri on Wednesday leading up to that state's Saturday division of county caucus delegates, breaking away long enough to make a telephone conference call to Illinois Republicans where he declared Santorum an "economic lightweight." He also likened Santorum and Gingrich to home-state Democratic President Barack Obama as examples of the danger of electing "a president who'd never run anything."
Santorum, who is expected to make his first campaign visit to Illinois on Friday, sent a campaign fundraising pitch to supporters off his two Southern victories and said "conservatives have the best opportunity they've had yet to nominate a conservative."
He asked for money to run ads in Illinois and other upcoming contests as documents showed Romney and his super political action committee crossed the $2.75 million mark in spending for TV ads across the state.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul made his lone planned pre-primary appearance at the University of Illinois.
Unlike earlier states, which have awarded convention delegates either as winner-take-all contests or proportionately by the popular vote for presidential nominee, the race in Illinois isn't so simple.
Voters cast a ballot to express their choice for a nominee, but the votes that matter require an extra step — casting ballots for delegate candidates aligned with their presidential preference.
That puts a premium on the candidates' selection of delegate teams and on promoting them as much as themselves. But the nitty-gritty of amassing delegates — the real goal of the primary and caucus season — lacks the rhetorical flourishes that voters want to see from their candidates.
Romney, Gingrich and Paul have a built-in advantage in Illinois when it comes to delegates. They each filed full delegate slates in the state's 18 congressional districts. Santorum backers were able to file slates in only 14 districts, representing 44 of the 54 delegates up for election.
The early focus in Illinois was on Gingrich and his refusal to abandon the race after his campaign previously had declared Alabama and Mississippi as must-win states. During his Wednesday visits to Rosemont and a GOP dinner in Palatine, the former speaker from Georgia called himself a "21st century conservative" and continued his pitch to reduce gasoline prices to $2.50 a gallon.
In Rosemont, Gingrich also promoted the need for states' rights. "Frankly, a lot of this applies to Springfield and how do you modernize the government of the state of Illinois so it's not the most expensive pension system in the country," he said. In reality, Illinois' pension debt is among the largest in the country.
Romney, in a half-hour telephone town hall to Illinois Republicans solicited by his campaign, warned the state's voters to beware of Santorum.
"Senator Santorum, for instance, is going to be campaigning in Illinois," Romney said. "I think you'll find he's an economic lightweight — not because he isn't an intelligent person but because not having ever spent any time in the private sector, he really doesn't understand fundamentally what it takes to make this economy grow and thrive and add jobs. The economy is in my wheelhouse, it's something I know well."
Romney sought to paint Santorum and Gingrich as lifelong creatures of Washington while portraying himself as spending his life "in the real economy."
"I've actually run things," Romney said. "Now as you know, we elected three years ago a president who'd never run anything. And it hasn't worked out so well. And both Speaker Gingrich and Senator Santorum, like the current president, have not really run anything. I think it helps to have run something and understand the economy by working in the real economy."
But one caller into the teleconference, who identified herself only as "Pam from Springfield," illustrated concerns among voters distrustful of Romney's conservative credentials.
Saying she was an opponent of abortion rights who voted for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee in the GOP primary four years ago, the caller asked about Romney's vow to seek the repeal of Obama's health care reform plan. Romney enacted his own far-reaching health care plan as Massachusetts governor.
"I just want to make sure you're going to (repeal) that, you're not going to change your mind when you get to Washington," she told Romney.
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