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GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Mitt Romney padded his delegate lead with a commanding Illinois victory Tuesday while Rick Santorum struggled to shift tactical and thematic perceptions of the GOP nomination battle.
Mr. Romney's big win allows him to reassert the front-runner's claim that has been such an elusive commodity during this tumultuous race.
With two-thirds of the vote counted, Mr. Romney was far ahead of Mr. Santorum, with 47 percent compared to 35 percent for the former Pennsylvania senator.
Texas Rep. Ron Paul and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich were a distant third and fourth, respectively.
Greeting their supporters, both Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum cast the race against President Obama as a struggle for freedom against an overreaching government.
"The American economy is fueled by freedom. Economic freedom is the only force that has consistently succeeded in lifting people out of poverty. It is the only principle that has ever created sustained prosperity," Mr. Romney said.
"But, over the last three years, this administration has been engaged in an assault on our freedom … ," Mr. Romney said.
"The administration's assault on freedom has kept this so-called recovery from meeting their projections, let alone our expectations," the front-runner said in remarks that echoed a speech that he had given on the previous day at the University of Chicago.
Rather than await the results in the Land of Lincoln, as its license plates proclaim, Mr. Santorum decided to hold his primary night event in Gettysburg, Pa., which is the site of Mr. Lincoln's most famous speech.
Mr. Santorum said that he chose the locale — in the state that he used to represent — to underscore the fact that this was "the most important election since the election of 1860."
"I've said throughout the course of this campaign that while other issues are certainly important … [the most important issue] is right behind me on this banner and that's the word, freedom," Mr. Santorum said.
He said that he had called Mr. Romney to congratulate him, and he boasted of his showing in the south and rural parts of the state, "the parts of the state that Republicans and conservatives populate."
Mr. Santorum bounded into Illinois with a tailwind from his wins in Alabama and Mississippi, but the state's less friendly demographics and another spending imbalance in favor of the Romney campaign kept Mr. Santorum's momentum from taking off.
According to a Democratic figure tracking media spending in the state, Mr. Romney's campaign and a supportive super-PAC outspent the Santorum forces by more than seven-to-one, with combined Romney spending on television and radio of $3.69 million compared to $517,381 for Mr. Santorum.
Mr. Santorum created problems for himself as well.
He spent valuable time out of the state to campaign in Puerto Rico in anticipation of its Sunday primary.
But the foray ended on a low note as he was put on the defensive by his observation that adoption of English as the island's "main language" should be a prerequisite for statehood.
In the end, Mr. Romney swept all 20 of the commonwealth's delegates.
Then, on the final day of campaigning in Illinois, Mr. Santorum, while trying to make the point that fundamental national principles were at stake in the presidential race, made the unfortunate observation that he didn't care about the unemployment rate.
The Romney campaign pounced on the remark.
Shortly before the polls closed, John Brabender, Mr. Santorum's veteran strategist, insisted that the campaign had a long way to go and he argued that Mr. Santorum's stronger appeal to the most conservative voters signaled problems for Mr. Romney should he win the nomination.
"We're the only ones who have shown we can win not only in the middle states like Colorado and North Dakota but also in the South, where Romney is having trouble."
He predicted that Mr. Romney's relative weakness in the South would emerge again in the next contest on the Republican road.
"People will see Louisiana is a very important state on Saturday," he said.
"Right now, Romney is doing well in areas where he's probably going to have trouble getting votes in the fall against Obama," Mr. Brabender said.
"We're doing well in the areas that you need, plus we're exciting the base. Remember what happened four years ago with John McCain? He could not excite the base."
Exit polls, conducted for the television networks and the Associated Press, found that the economy, which was cited by a majority, was the dominant issue among Illinois voters, followed by the budget deficit.
Abortion and other social issues were ranked much lower as a voting issue.
Following a pattern established in earlier states, Mr. Romney was running ahead in suburban communities while Mr. Santorum scored more strongly with rural voters.
Mr. Romney was winning handily with both male and female voters.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. James O'Toole and Karen Langley are reporters for the Post-Gazette.
Contact James O'Toole at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1562.