DOBSON, North Carolina — Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney scored big in Illinois Tuesday night, putting even more daylight between himself and his closest rival, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.
Romney got more than 46 percent of the vote, to Santorum’s 35 percent. Ron Paul, the congressman from Texas, was a distant third with just over 9 percent. Newt Gingrich, the former speaker of the House, who briefly held the spotlight after his win in South Carolina in January, is looking increasingly irrelevant, coming in fourth with 8 percent.
Romney will receive at least 40 of the 54 delegates that were up for grabs Tuesday; another 14 will be awarded at the Illinois state convention in June.
Santorum’s campaign showed the organizational weaknesses that have characterized it in several states so far, failing to slate delegates in several districts.
The former Massachusetts governor, who has had a great deal of trouble sealing his status as the presumed nominee, is looking all but unstoppable at this point, with an estimated 522 pledged delegates against Santorum’s 253.
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During his victory speech on Tuesday night, Romney looked relaxed and confident, having his wife Ann make the first address to the audience. Ann Romney has been an asset to her husband, personalizing his sometimes-stiff demeanor.
“I’ve got the guy who can fix things,” she said to a wildly cheering crowd.
Romney was every inch the nominee as he accepted the plaudits, focusing on President Barack Obama and all but ignoring the remaining Republican candidates.
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“After years of too many apologies and not enough jobs, historic drops in income and historic highs in gas prices, a president who doesn't hesitate to use all the means necessary to force through Obamacare on the American public, but leads from behind in the world. It's time to say these words. This word: enough. We've had enough," he said.
But Santorum is far from ready to give up the ship, despite a series of gaffes that have made him look even more extreme than he has to date. In a campaign speech in Moline, Illinois, on Monday, he said he did “not care about unemployment,” instead reiterating that his campaign was based on his core faith and beliefs.
Romney’s camp seized on the remark, even though it was taken out of context in a manner similar to Romney’s ill-considered utterance right before the Florida primary, where he said he “did not care about the very poor.”
Santorum was also stung by a controversy in Louisiana, in which an ultra-conservative pastor, Dennis Perry, veered into something close to bigotry when introducing Santorum at a rally in Greenwell Springs.
"This nation was founded as a Christian nation," Terry said. "There is only one God, and his name is Jesus. We don't worship Mohammed and we don't worship Allah. ... If you don't love America, and you don't like the way we do things, I've got one thing to say, get out!"
Santorum, who is Catholic and has made his faith a centerpiece of his campaign for social conservatism, has tried to distance himself from the remarks, saying he “did not clap” for Pastor Terry.
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Romney’s Illinois win does not necessarily translate into good news for November’s election. Illinois is Obama country, the state where he got his start, and where he won in a landslide in 2008.
“It is always going to be Obama,” said Chicago resident Joel Simon.
He acknowledges that the president may be a bit less popular in the state than he was in the heyday of his first campaign, due to the economy and some disappointment from the left.
“I think they expected he would be more activist,” said Simon, who works in a non-profit organization specializing in adult education. “The youth is not as jazzed up as they were four years ago.”
There was a lot of media attention focused on Illinois, but within the state the primary went almost unnoticed. Turnout was light — less than 13 percent of Illinois’ 7.2 millions registered voters came out for the poll.
Simon, who had spent some time in Florida during the primary there in January, said that there was nothing like the avalanche of robocalls, television advertising and general buzz around the Illinois election.
“It was not even close,” he said.
Romney dropped millions on media in the state, outspending Sanotrum 5 to 1, even more if one counts the Super PACs.
Jeff Lewelling, another Illinois voter, agreed that the primary was a fairly low-key affair for the public.
“You don’t hear anything about the election,” he said, speaking by phone a few days before the primary. “Illinois does not usually play such an important role in these primaries. It is unusual for the nomination to still be undecided at this point.”
Technically, Romney has not clinched the nomination, although he has said it will take an “act of God” for Santorum to overtake him.
But the former Pennsylvania senator does not seem to be trying to win state primaries at this point. Instead, he is trying to block Romney from securing the 1,144 votes needed to go into the national convention the undisputed winner. Should there be a floor fight in Tampa in August, or what the media persists in calling a “brokered convention,” Santorum hopes he can pry enough delegates away from Romney to emerge as the frontrunner.
But that is looking more and more unlikely as the contests tick by.
Louisiana is up next, holding its primary on Saturday.
People are now beginning to look toward the general election, perhaps tired of all the infighting among the Republicans and longing for a bigger picture.
Some Illinois voters are pretty sure they know what will happen.
“I took my 10-year-old daughter to see ‘Star Wars,’" Simon joked. “It seems clear: Obama is Luke Skywalker, Romney is Darth Vader. Santorum? He’s Jabba the Hut.”