The Illinois showdown between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum could mark a turning point in a race that refuses to die.
That is, if anyone could get excited about it. The contest lacks just one thing: any sense of drama.
By every conceivable measure, Romney should carry the primary on Tuesday, perhaps by a more comfortable margin than he had in Michigan and Ohio. Romney has greatly outspent the former Pennsylvania senator, as usual, and is up 45 to 30 percent among likely voters in the latest Public Policy Polling survey. Even if Santorum somehow pulls off a popular-vote upset, he will trail in the delegate count because once again he didn’t manage to file a full slate.
The last-minute fisticuffs has left both men without a positive message. Romney ripped Santorum as an “economic lightweight,” prompting Santorum to call him a “big-government heavyweight” and “Wall Street financier” who would be Tweedledum to Barack Obama’s Tweedledee. Worse, in punching back on the campaign trail Monday, Santorum said, “I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be. Doesn’t matter to me.”
While he was trying to make the larger point that presidents don’t create jobs, businesses do, Santorum was being as clumsy as his rival had been in declaring “I don’t care about the very poor.” And the Democrats have it on tape.
Maybe it’s fatigue, but both men’s performances seem to be deteriorating as the campaign grinds on. No wonder Illinois Republicans sound soporific.
“He’s not overwhelming,” former House Republican leader Bob Michel told Politico. about Romney, the candidate he's supporting. Michel asked: “What’s the spark? What’s the thing that gets him off and running? No one knows.”
The Romney camp will play up an Illinois victory as further evidence that their man is compiling an insurmountable delegate lead and Santorum has no chance of catching him. But the relentless focus on math has obscured Romney’s message and turned the GOP race into something of an insider’s debate about party rules, proportional representation, and the possibility of a deadlocked convention. Santorum has played along, saying the odds of a brokered convention are increasing. And that—what will happen in the back rooms of Tampa in late August—is at this stage a conversation mainly of interest to political junkies.
Romney remains ultra-cautious on the issues. In an interview Sunday on Fox News—he continues to avoid all other Sunday shows—Romney accused President Obama of “failed leadership” in Afghanistan. But when asked if he would favor a speedier withdrawal, Romney said:
“Well, the timing of withdrawal is going to be dependent about what you hear from the conditions on the ground. That you understand by speaking with commanders, as well as, of course, the people of Afghanistan and their ability to maintain their sovereignty and to have the capacity—to have a military that can stand up to the challenges they face.” Speaking with commanders? How, exactly, does that differ from Obama’s policy?
Santorum, for his part, still seems to be targeting his message at very conservative and religious voters after his misstep in Puerto Rico. There Romney trounced him after Santorum said the commonwealth would have to adopt English as the official language if it became a state. He is now talking about a crackdown on pornography, and when asked on MSNBC’s Morning Joe whether contraception had become a distraction for his campaign, Santorum responded forcefully about religious liberty and passed up chances to move on to other subjects.
The result is that the Illinois race seems frozen in Romney’s favor. In the PPP poll, Romney triples Santorum’s following among “somewhat conservative” voters, 60 percent to 20 percent. And Santorum is up by only 8 percent among Tea Party followers and 10 percent among evangelicals, margins too modest to offset his weaknesses elsewhere.
Newt Gingrich, for his part, recently accused Obama of “crushing Christianity and Judaism.” But he is back at 12 percent in the PPP survey, drawing far less media attention after failing to win Alabama or Mississippi last week.
Ironically, Romney might benefit more if Illinois were closer, because journalists tend to get exercised over squeakers and steer clear of blowouts. The media market has already priced Romney’s expected Illinois victory into his political stock, leaving little possibility of a surprise bump.
After Saturday’s Louisiana primary, where Santorum leads by 4 points in one poll, the contest moves to what should be friendlier terrain for Romney: Maryland, D.C., and Wisconsin on April 3, followed by New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware on April 24 (plus Santorum’s home state of Pennsylvania).
Santorum has won 10 states, a significant accomplishment for his underfunded campaign. But if Illinois renders the same verdict as the previous two Midwestern states where Santorum fell short, it will amount to another missed opportunity for him to change the dynamic of the race.