SCHAUMBURG, Ill. - Mitt Romney resoundingly won the Illinois primary Tuesday, stunting the momentum of rival Rick Santorum in a delegate-rich state and giving the former Massachusetts governor ammunition to argue that it is time for the party to coalesce around him.
Romney, who spent the past four days campaigning in Illinois, won for the third straight time in an industrial Midwestern state and expanded his large lead in the number of delegates needed to secure the Republican presidential nomination. Romney won 47 percent of the vote, to Santorum’s 35 percent, with 99 percent of the vote counted.
“It’s time to say these words, this word: Enough. We’ve had enough,’’ Romney said from a hotel ballroom in this Chicago suburb, in speech tinged with rhetoric that forecast a strong pivot toward President Obama and the general election. “We know our future’s brighter than these troubled times. We still believe in America, and we deserve a president who believes in us, and I believe in the American people.’’
The Republican nominating contest is far from over - Romney has yet to win half of the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination - but Illinois represented a missed opportunity for Santorum to again rattle the process before the campaign shifts to states more favorable to Romney in April.
But Santorum, predicting a strong showing in Louisiana’s primary on Saturday, showed every intention of continuing a vigorous fight to harness the conservative antipathy toward Romney.
“Saddle up - like Reagan did in the cowboy movies,’’ he told his supporters gathered in Gettysburg, Pa.
Santorum noted that he carried more conservative areas of Illinois, and he continued to criticize Romney over his health care plan in Massachusetts.
Representative Ron Paul took about 9 percent of the vote and Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker whose campaign has foundered, won 8 percent. Romney was likely to take a majority of the 54 delegates at stake, bolstering his argument that the math is on his side. Santorum’s organizational problems - he did not fulfill ballot requirements in several congressional districts - made him ineligible for 10 delegates.
With a little more than half of the contests now decided, Romney has won 16 states and all five US territories, while Santorum has carried nine states, and Gingrich has won two.
The win in Illinois was important for Romney’s campaign. It was the first time he decisively took a state in the Midwest, after eking out wins in Michigan and Ohio and losing to Santorum in Iowa and Minnesota. Such an impressive win, Romney’s supporters say, could help him unite the party.
Just minutes after he spoke from the state, Romney sent an e-mail to supporters titled, “Time to close.’’
“Tonight’s win means we are that much closer to securing the nomination, uniting our party, and taking on President Obama,’’ Romney wrote. “We are almost there.’’
Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, spent the final hours of the Illinois primary campaigning aggressively but made an ill-timed gaffe by saying he didn’t care about the unemployment rate.
Surveys of voters as they exited the polls, however, found that 56 percent said the economy was their top issue, compared with 26 percent who said the federal budget deficit, and 12 percent who named abortion, according to the Associated Press.
The results in Illinois also highlighted the continued strains within the Republican Party between voting for someone who can win against the president over someone who they believe is more in line with the party’s conservative base. Among the 35 percent who said the most important quality in their candidate was the ability to defeat Obama, 71 percent voted for Romney - a figure that exceeds almost every state where exit polls were conducted.
Among the 20 percent who said the most important quality was to nominate a “true conservative,’’ Santorum won 67 percent of the vote.
As in other states, Romney fared much better among educated, wealthy, and moderate voters. Santorum won among evangelicals, voters who consider themselves “very conservative,’’ and those making less than $50,000.
The primary in Illinois initially echoed tightly contested Midwestern states. Romney’s campaign and its allies blitzed the television airwaves, vastly outspending Santorum with negative attack ads. Romney increased his visits and adopted sharper rhetoric against Santorum, calling him, repeatedly, an “economic lightweight.’’
Because Gingrich and Paul largely avoided Illinois, the race became a test of the competing visions of Romney and Santorum, and the different factions of the party they represent.
Romney focused tightly on the economy, and centered his campaign around Chicago and its suburbs, where Republicans tend to be more moderate and business-minded. He delivered an economic address on Monday at the University of Chicago, steps from Obama’s house and on the campus where he taught constitutional law before running for the US Senate.
Santorum focused his campaign on the more rural - and far more conservative - southern part of the state. He also reignited charges that Romney was unqualified to take on Obama on health care, citing the similarities between the federal plan Republicans detest and the Massachusetts one that Romney shepherded. He said the former Massachusetts governor lacked a principled political core, adding he was beholden to moneyed interests in the financial sector he worked in for 25 years.
The contest seemed to turn over the weekend, with polls showing Romney pulling away from the field. Santorum’s comment - “I don’t care about the unemployment rate’’- probably killed any chances of a late rally.
For Illinois Republicans, the contest offered a rare spotlight in a state dominated by Democrats - Obama’s reelection headquarters is located in downtown Chicago. A Republican presidential candidate hasn’t carried the state since 1988.
Romney supporters are hoping the win in Illinois intensifies calls from establishment Republicans to draw the nominating contest to a close so that the party can focus solely on Obama.
Each time Romney seems poised for a breakthrough, however, Republican voters have delivered him a setback that has prolonged the race much further than most anticipated.
After Romney won in New Hampshire, he was soundly defeated in South Carolina. After he won Florida and Nevada, he was caught off guard by Santorum wins in Colorado, Minnesota, and Missouri. Romney wins in Michigan and Ohio were countered by several Santorum victories in the South.
Before the results Tuesday night, Romney had 522 delegates, according to an Associated Press tally. Santorum had 252, Gingrich had 136, and Paul had 50. Romney is currently on pace to capture the 1,144 delegates he needs before the Republican National Convention, held in August in Tampa. But his rivals are hoping to forestall the decision and trigger a fight on the convention floor.
After Illinois, the candidates will shift their energies toward several upcoming states. Santorum went back to his home state of Pennsylvania, his best chance for winning a significant chunk of delegates next month. He also plans to spend the next several days in Louisiana, which holds the next contest on Saturday, and Wisconsin.
For Gingrich’s campaign, Louisiana is critical. Another loss in a Southern state would be devastating.
Romney plans to campaign in Maryland on Wednesday, before heading to Louisiana. On April 3, Maryland and the District of Columbia join Wisconsin in voting. After a three-week break, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island cast their ballots.
The primary on Tuesday was decided by voters like Dianne Eberhardt, a 77-year-old retired physical therapist from Vernon Hills, Ill. She liked Gingrich, perhaps more than any other candidate, but didn’t think he stood a chance at winning. Her views line up closely with Santorum, but fears that he doesn’t have enough economic experience.
After hearing Romney at a town hall on Sunday night in Vernon Hills, she settled on him.
“I’m very conservative,’’ she said. “I don’t feel Romney is as conservative as I’d like him to be, but he’s backed down to some conservative positions.’’
“This has been a real dogfight, this primary business,’’ she added. But was she ready for it to be over? No.
“I’d like to see it go on for a while,’’ she said.