VERNON HILLS, Ill. — Savoring a Puerto Rican political sweep and light-heartedly contemplating a national one in November, Mitt Romney sought an Illinois victory with an appeal Sunday to the affluent suburban voters who have formed a pillar of his Republican presidential campaign.
At a town hall in one of the vote-rich counties surrounding Chicago, a friendly questioner urged the Republican front-runner not to write off Illinois in the electoral competition in the fall.
“I haven’t decided whether we can get all 50 states or just most of them,” Mr. Romney kiddingly replied hours after he had extended his delegate lead by capturing all 20 of the GOP convention votes from Puerto Rico.
He wasn’t the only one looking forward two days before this state hosts one more of the Midwestern face-offs between Mr. Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.
His wife, Ann Romney, told the overflow crowd it was time to “coalesce, come together, get behind one candidate, and move on and get the job done.”
In his remarks and in a question-and-answer session with an overwhelmingly friendly audience that overflowed onto the lawn outside, Mr. Romney continued the general election focus, concentrating his attacks on President Obama and his management of the economy and national security.
Mr. Romney faulted the administration for presiding over growing deficits, contended the President had been slow in resisting Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and declared that his policies threaten to take away “our economic freedom … and change the very nature of America.”
Mr. Romney came to the event pumped up by the news that he had just swept the Puerto Rico primary with a showing that election officials there projected at well over 50 percent. He said his showing was a rebuttal to anyone who claimed that “Latinos would not vote for a Republican.”
The Caribbean results left Mr. Santorum with nothing to show for the precious campaign time he invested there. In the days after his Missouri-Colorado-Minnesota trifecta at the beginning of last month, Mr. Santorum found his momentum shunted into in a distracted detour as he was forced to spend time explaining off-the-cuff remarks on his personal opposition to contraception and his revulsion at a 50-year-old speech in which the late John Kennedy, during his successful 1960 presidential campaign, spoke up for the separation of church and state.
The last week was a replay of that dynamic. After his victories in Mississippi and Alabama, Mr. Santorum headed to Puerto Rico, where he again found himself off-message as he was forced to explain over and over his observation that adoption of English as its “main language” should be a prerequisite for Puerto Rican statehood.
Mr. Santorum was scheduled to return to Illinois Monday after campaigning Sunday in Louisiana, the site of a nominating contest Saturday. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia was also campaigning in Louisiana, while Texas Rep. Ron Paul was off the campaign trail.
On Tuesday, primary night, Mr. Santorum won’t be awaiting the returns in Illinois. He announced on his Twitter account late Sunday that he planned to speak that night in Gettysburg, in the state the current Virginia resident represented in the Senate.
Polling in Illinois and pre-primary lapses by the Santorum forces suggested that Mr. Romney was positioned to continue to pad his delegate lead Tuesday.
Recent surveys in the state showed a building but not overwhelming lead for Mr. Romney. In a Rasmussen Poll released late last week, he led Mr. Santorum by 41 percent to 32 percent. A Fox News survey showed a slightly smaller lead for the former Massachusetts governor, 37 percent to 31 percent. Mr. Gingrich had just 14 percent in both surveys, and Mr. Paul was in single digits in both.
Mr. Santorum’s delegate prospects in Illinois, as in Ohio and Virginia previously, and in the coming District of Columbia contest, were hobbled by the fact that his organization failed to field a full slate of delegate candidates. He has no supporters on the ballot in four of the state’s 18 congressional districts.
Like the communities around Cleveland and Cincinnati that were crucial to Mr. Romney’s narrow win in Ohio, and the area surrounding Detroit in the earlier Michigan contest, the populous northern Chicago suburbs are expected to be fertile territory for Romney votes in contrast to the more conservative downstate region where Mr. Santorum has concentrated his campaigning.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O’Toole is the politics editor of the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O’Toole at: email@example.com.