CHICAGO â€” Republican voters have yet to giveÂ Mitt RomneyÂ a green light to begin a formal campaign against President Obama, so Mr. Romney paid a visit to the presidentâ€™s old neighborhood here on Monday for yet another audition to show he is tough enough to win the general election.
On the eve of the Illinois primary, where he hopes a commanding victory will start extinguishing the insurgent fire ofÂ Rick Santorum, Mr. Romney took the luxury of ignoring his Republican rivals. It was one part buoyant confidence and one part symbolic opportunity that led Mr. Romney to deliver an economic speech just a short stroll from Mr. Obamaâ€™s actual backyard.
The Republican primary calendar is only slightly beyond the halfway mark, with Mr. Santorum and, to a lesser extent, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, still scrapping for delegates.Â Mr. Santorum said he presented the sharpest contrast to Mr. Obama, while Mr. Gingrich was off the campaign trail strategizing about how to stop Mr. Romney from getting the nomination and Mr. Paul was all but invisible.
Hopeful that the results in Illinois could at last begin rallying the party to his side, Mr. Romney sought to signal that he is moving to the next stage â€” whether the voters are ready or not â€” and assailed the president by name more than a dozen times in the span of 18 minutes without mentioning the other Republican candidates.
â€œOur choice will not be one of party or personality,â€ Mr. Romney said during a lecture-style speech, taking the rare move of trading his jeans and open-collar shirt for a suit and tie and reading from a prompter. â€œThis election will be about principle.â€
In the speech, Mr. Romney avowed a commitment to conservative economic principles and deregulation. But in citing examples of what he said was the stifling hand of the Obama administration, he presented two specific examples, including the phasing out of the incandescent light bulb, that turned out to have their roots in actions taken by President George W. Bushâ€™s administration.
Mr. Romney did not directly mention Mr. Santorum, but the Romney team and its allies were intently focused on him, trying to bury him in negative advertising. In Illinois, Mr. Romney had a spending advantage of at least 6 to 1 over Mr. Santorum.
But the voters of Illinois, perhaps including some of the same crossover Republicans who helped contribute to Mr. Obamaâ€™s own political rise, will now help write the next chapter of the Republican primary. Mr. Romneyâ€™s aides believe a comfortable victory could be at hand on Tuesday, but Mr. Santorum and the rest of the field showed no signs of stepping aside.
As Mr. Romney previewed general election themes in a speech at the University of Chicago, Mr. Santorum spoke about 120 miles west in Dixon, the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan. He argued that his campaign, unlike Mr. Romneyâ€™s, was not built around the rises and falls in the economy.