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Mitt Romney wins Illinois primary

Mitt Romney appeared at a rally in Schaumburg, Ill., after winning that state’s Republican primary.

JIM YOUNG/REUTERS

Mitt Romney appeared at a rally in Schaumburg, Ill., after winning that state’s Republican primary.

SCHAUMBURG, Ill. – Mitt Romney won the Illinois primary Tuesday, according to the Associated Press, stunting the momentum of former senator Rick Santorum and pocketing a crucial batch of delegates as the campaign begins to shift to more favorable territory for the former Massachusetts governor.

Romney, who spent the past four days campaigning in Illinois, was expected to win the vast majority of the 54 delegates at stake. AP called the race for Romney about 44 minutes after the polls closed at 8 p.m.

Charles Dharapak/AP

Rick Santorum stood with son Daniel and daughter Elizabeth at a rally in Gettysburg, Pa.

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The Republican nominating contest is far from over – Romney doesn’t even have half of the 1,144 delegates he needs to clinch the nomination – but Illinois represented an opportunity for Santorum to again rattle the process before April, when eight states that generally seem favorable to Romney vote.

The primary in Illinois played out like other Midwestern states – Michigan and Ohio -- where Romney faced early challenges but used a vigorous strategy to overcome them. His 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 the other two Republican presidential candidates -- Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul -- largely avoided Illinois, the race became a test of the competing visions between Romney and Santorum, and the different factions of the party they represent.

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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, where Barack Obama taught law before running for the US Senate.

Santorum downplayed economic concerns, focusing 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 President Obama on health care, citing the similarities between the federal plan Republican 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.

But Romney seized on a comment Santorum made on the eve of the election – saying “I don’t care about the unemployment rate” – to suggest the former Pennsylvania senator was ill-prepared at a time when the economy is a top concern of voters.

Surveys of voters as they excited the polls found that 56 percent said the economy was their top issue, compared with 26 percent who said the federal budget, and 12 percent who said abortion.

The exit polls also showed that about 4 in 10 of those who voted for Romney or Santorum said they had reservations about their choice.

Illinois Republicans enjoyed a rare spotlight in a state dominated by Democrats; the president has his reelection campaign headquarters in Chicago. A Republican presidential candidate hasn’t carried the state since 1988.

Romney supporters are hoping the win accelerates calls from establishment Republicans to draw the nominating contest to a close so that the party can focus solely on President Obama.

Each time Romney seems poised for a breakthrough, however, primary voters have delivered him a setback that has prolonged the race.

After he 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. After he won Michigan and Ohio, Santorum carried several Southern states.

Before the results Tuesday night, Romney had 522 delegates, according to an Associated Press tally. Santorum has 252, Gingrich has 136, and Paul has 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 prevent Romney from reaching that number, creating a convention where no one candidate has secured a victory and triggering an extended fight for the nomination.

After Tuesday’s Illinois primary, the candidates will shift 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.

Romney on Wednesday plans to campaign in Maryland, before heading to Louisiana. On April 3, residents of Maryland and the District of Columbia join Wisconsin to vote before a three week break. Connecticut, Delaware, New York, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island cast their ballots on April 24.

The primary on Tuesday was decided by voters like Dianne Eberbardt, 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 the other night, 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.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.
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