Vernon Hills, Ill. — For Mitt Romney, tonight offers a chance to prove that he can beat Rick Santorum decisively in the Midwest.
“I think Romney will do well. He’ll probably win by five to eleven points,” predicts Dan Curry, an Illinois GOP strategist.
Romney won the two other midwestern states he and Santorum have aggressively fought for — Ohio and Michigan — by small margins: less than a point in Ohio and three points in Michigan. But last night, a poll from Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed Romney with a 15-point lead over Santorum in Illinois.
Illinois-GOP chairman and Romney supporter Pat Brady declines to guess whether Romney could win by double digits: “It’s 80 degrees here in March. I don’t know what that’s going to do to turnout. I’ve never experienced it. I know what rain does. I know what snow does.” But he speculates that Illinois’s economic devastation (the state is 48th in job creation and has the eighth-highest unemployment rate in the nation) might explain why Romney is doing better here than he did in Ohio and Michigan, whose economic situations aren’t quite as dire. And Romney has grown as a candidate. “I think his message has gotten better as the campaign’s gone on,” Brady says.
Furthermore, Romney is competitive with Santorum in the areas outside of Chicago and its suburbs, areas whose demographics would normally boost Santorum. “Romney and Santorum are running dead even right now downstate,” says Brady, noting that Romney is benefiting from the endorsement of Representative John Shimkus, “who has one of the best political organizations in the state” and whose district is in southern Illinois. He has also been endorsed by Representative Aaron Shock, whose district includes much of the middle chunk of the state.
Romney has been aggressively campaigning, crisscrossing the entire state, not just the Chicago area. And according to Brady, the campaign has also worked on courting absentee-ballot voters.
In a town hall in Vernon Hills Sunday night, Romney said little directly about Santorum. That’s in sharp contrast to Santorum, who tends to criticize Romney several times in each stump speech these days. But Romney did take care to burnish his business and Washington-outsider credentials, speaking to a crowd of hundreds inside, with hundreds more outside listening via loudspeakers.
“I didn’t learn about the economy in a subcommittee of Congress,” he said. “I learned about the economy on the streets of American business, and in the free marketplace, and trading around the world.”
“By the way,” he added, “we’re not going to be successful in replacing an economy lightweight if we choose an economy lightweight to be our nominee.”
The bulk of his remarks before taking questions focused on the economy and the military. “The hard times don’t seem to be over,” Romney said, adding that even as the economy seemed to be “getting a little better on the employment front, gasoline’s getting a lot worse.”
“And incomes aren’t rising,” he continued. “Incomes are down 10 percent in the last four years, the median income is. Can you imagine that? At the same time, gasoline prices have doubled under this president. Doubled.”
Romney also derided the amount of government intervention in the economy: “They want the heavy hand of government to replace the invisible hand of free enterprise and the free-market system.”
Answering questions, Romney spoke easily and without hesitation. When asked about education, he noted that classroom size and per-pupil spending don’t impact education outcomes, but teacher quality does. “We need better starting salaries to attract more people into teaching, the very best and brightest,” he said, criticizing the unions for focusing on retirement benefits for tenured teachers instead. On Obamacare, he noted the limitations of what he could do as president: “My job will be a heck of a lot easier in stopping Obamacare if we have a Republican House and a Republican Senate.”
In response to one voter’s plea that he not concede Chicago, Romney quipped, “I’m sure Rahm Emanuel will be in there helping me, all the way.”
His answers at the town hall convinced at least one voter, whose husband had asked about whether Social Security would still be around for the couple’s 17-year-old daughter. Romney outlined the measures he would take to make the program sustainable, but couldn’t resist adding, “By the way, congratulations on having a 17-year-old daughter. Hope she looks like your wife. She’s a very lovely person. Yeah, you married up. Just like me.”
The wife, Carrie Rogers of Lake Bluff, said she had been a “big Newt supporter.”
“Listening to Romney speak tonight, he answered a lot of my questions,” she remarked. Did she plan to vote for him then? “Absolutely.”
— Katrina Trinko is an NRO reporter.