CHICAGOâ€”Mitt Romney has been favored to win in Illinois, thanks to his large financial advantage and a voter pool full of the sort of upper-income, educated Republicans who have backed him in prior contests.
But the GOP presidential race is neck and neck ahead of Tuesday’s primary, so Mr. Romney scheduled a visit to the state Friday, days earlier than expected, and his campaign and allies are making large advertising buys.
Illinois is the next big prize on the GOP presidential nominating calendar, with 54 of the state’s 69 delegates up for grabs, one of the largest caches of the contest so far. After this week’s losses to Rick Santorum in Mississippi and Alabama, a loss by Mr. Romney in a large state considered friendly to him would amplify doubts about his ability to connect with voters.
His record is mixed in the Midwest. He carried Michigan and won narrowly in Ohio, while essentially tying Mr. Santorum in Iowa and losing to him in Minnesota and in a nonbinding straw poll in Missouri. A survey of likely Illinois primary voters released this week put Mr. Romney ahead of Mr. Santorum 35% to 31%, within the poll’s margin of error. Newt Gingrich was at 12% and Rep. Ron Paul at 7% in the survey, done for the Chicago Tribune and WGN-TV.
Illinois Romney supporters say their candidate’s business background is an important credential here. Unemployment in the state was 9.4% in Januaryâ€”the eighth-highest among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. A mounting public-employee pension deficit and steep state budget shortfall prompted Moody’s Investors Service to downgrade Illinois’s bond rating in January to the lowest among all states. Housing prices continue to sink.
“The only thing that anyone is focused on is the economy, and that plays to Romney’s advantage,” said Christine Radogno, Republican leader of the Illinois Senate, who endorsed Mr. Romney this week. “He has the private sector experience, and that’s what people are looking for.”
In a conference call with supporters and voters Wednesday, Mr. Romney called Mr. Santorum “an economic lightweight” and touted his own private-sector record: “The economy is in my wheelhouse,” he said. “It’s something I know well, and I want to use that experience to get America’s economy strong again.”
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