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Mitt Romney Wins Delegates but Not Love in the Illinois Primary

More than Mitt Romney’s victory, the story of Illinois is Rick Santorum's defeat, says Paul Begala.

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Mitt Romney got the win he needed in Illinois, dispatching the surprisingly game Rick Santorum and the increasingly lame Newt Gingrich.

Romney’s win required the active assistance of Santorum. Perhaps buoyed, perhaps blinded, by his twin wins in Mississippi and Alabama, Santorum wasted precious time on a fool’s errand: telling the people of Puerto Rico they will have to abandon their mother tongue, then telling voters in Illinois that “the unemployment rate doesn’t matter to me.” More than Mitt Romney’s victory, the story of Illinois is Rick Santorum’s defeat.

Santorum’s self-immolation was important, as was Newt Gingrich’s disappearance. But perhaps what was most essential to Romney’s victory was not the low profiles of Santorum and Gingrich, but the low profile of Mitt Romney himself. For once, he did not shoot himself in the Gucci loafer. He did not brag about having friends who own NFL franchises, or NASCAR racing teams. Nor did he casually dismiss $374,000 in speaking fees as not a lot of money. He didn’t even strap a dog to the roof of one of his Cadillacs.

Like any good campaign, Romney’s campaign team played to its strength—money and organization—and downplayed its weaknesses: the effete, elite, mega-millionaire whose 100 percent polyester face adorns their posters. With no debates to publicize Gingrich’s antimedia thunderbolts, Ron Paul’s iconoclastic libertarianism, or Santorum’s feisty right-wing populism, Team Romney could rise to the top by outspending Santorum by a staggering 21-to-1 in the dominant Chicago media market. Romney’s army lined up slates of delegates up and down the state, which Santorum’s ragtag militia could not accomplish.

It appears that the Republicans are finally acting like Republicans: nominating the oldest white guy in line—especially if he lost last time. Still, Romney is unlikely to run the table. Louisiana holds its primary on Saturday, and Santorum could easily ambush Romney there.

An overlooked but critical piece of data in the Illinois exit poll: 40 percent of Republican primary voters said they had reservations about the candidate they voted for. Not a candidate they opposed, mind you. They had reservations about the guy they just voted for. You never heard that in the Hillary-Barack fight of 2008. Sure, some Clinton voters said they wouldn’t back Obama—and vice versa. In fact, four years ago Obama whupped Clinton in his home state of Illinois. But even as Obama racked up 65 percent of the vote, 60 percent of voters said they would be happy if Clinton ended up as the nominee.

Romney has won an important primary, and he is very likely to win the nomination. But he has yet to win the affection and admiration of his own party—much less of the independents who will decide the election in November.