SPRINGFIELD — Mitt Romney on Monday focused his message on attacking President Barack Obama rather than his GOP competitors.|
The former Massachusetts governor failed to mention by name former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, his biggest rival for the GOP presidential nomination. In fact, during a 10-minute speech at a North Street eatery, Romney hardly talked about today's primary.
Instead, he focused on the economy.
Romney said Obama has driven up the national deficit and failed to strengthen the economy and quicken the recovery after the Great Recession.
"I'm not an economic lightweight, President Obama is," Romney told a crowd of more than 150 that spilled out of Charlie Parker's Diner, famous for its pancakes. "We're not going to be successful in replacing an economic lightweight with another economic lightweight."
Jon Zahm, director of Santorum's Illinois campaign, refuted the claim against the former Pennsylvania senator. "Just because Rick's background is not as a Wall Street financier doesn't mean he doesn't have economic knowledge or experience," he said.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and Texas U.S. Rep. Ron Paul also are on the GOP primary ticket Tuesday in Illinois. But both trail Romney and Santorum by margins virtually impossible to make up.
Neither Gingrich nor Paul is scheduled to appear in Illinois before the primary.
Romney spent the weekend making stops around the state. Most of his stump speeches have been variations on what he said in the state Capitol, focusing on Obama rather than Romney's primary competition.
"Romney is spinning you Wednesday morning's headline ... which is, 'Romney wins big in Illinois and increases his momentum towards inevitable victory,'" said John Jackson, a political science professor at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
But Zahm said Romney's victory -- in Illinois and elsewhere -- is anything but inevitable.
"We're going to win delegates in Illinois. We're shooting for a majority," Zahm said. "We're going to run very well in many districts."
Romney and Santorum spent the eve of the primary traveling Illinois, shaking hands and signing autographs at venues downstate, which, compared to Chicagoland — where Romney has heavier support — is more up for grabs.
A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll released this past Monday had Romney leading Santorum 39 percent to 30 percent in Cook County, and 39 percent to 27 percent in the collar counties. Overall, Romney leads with 35 percent, while Santorum has 31 percent, according to the poll.
The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points in the survey of 600 registered Republicans.
Illinois is usually an inconsequential player in presidential primaries. But the tight GOP race, especially between Romney and Santorum, has increased the importance of Illinois' 69 delegates. Candidates need 1,144 delegates to clinch the nomination. So far Romney has 494 delegates; Santorum has 248, Gingrich has 128 delegates and Paul has 49.
Only 54 Illinois delegates will be assigned based on votes Tuesday. The other 15 delegates are free floaters who can cast votes at the GOP nominating convention for any candidate. Santorum is handicapped when it comes to delegates. The most he could walk away with Tuesday is 44 because his campaign failed to complete some necessary paperwork on time.
"There's no real reason to expect Romney is going to be beaten in Illinois," Jackson said.
If that happens, Jackson added, expect Romney's campaign rhetoric to focus even more on the presumed race against Obama.
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