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updated: 3/8/2012 2:13 PM

GOP primary campaigns sharpen Illinois focus

State's 54 delegates could be huge factor

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  • Rick Santorum

    Rick Santorum

  • Mitt Romney

    Mitt Romney

  • Newt Gingrich

    Newt Gingrich

  • Video: Gingrich Georgia speech

  • Video: Romney wins Ohio

and Projects Writer

For those who watched Ohio's GOP presidential primary election returns late into Tuesday night waiting for one candidate to emerge victorious, get ready: It could happen again, with your suburban backyard up for grabs.

Super Tuesday's 10 coast-to-coast contests put former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney well above his rivals in overall delegates, but also renewed questions about his ability to lock in conservative votes.

With 54 directly elected delegates at stake in President Barack Obama's home turf, Illinois is a coveted prize -- one that stands alone in the spotlight on March 20. The victor gets both bragging rights and a boost in momentum.

State campaigns are honing their strategies, with the suburbs as the prime battleground -- a traditional Republican stronghold with divergent conservative views.

"There are some cross currents in the suburbs," said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University.

"You have a lot of moderate Republican women, but you also have some real strong social conservative and Evangelical currents."

With less than two weeks to go before Illinois' primary, the three leading presidential campaigns detailed their strategies Wednesday and made plans for visits to the area.

Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator and a graduate of Carmel High School in Mundelein, will cede four congressional districts where he did not file delegate slates, but hopes to concentrate on conservatives along the state borders, downstate and in the suburbs. Romney will try to appeal across the board with his economic emphasis, while former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, of Georgia, hopes to stay competitive with the sheer number of visits.

Santorum's Illinois director, Jon Zahm, formerly of Batavia, believes Illinois is going to be "extremely competitive." Santorum lost to Romney in Ohio -- a key November battleground -- by a single percentage point Tuesday.

"The only reason we didn't win Ohio, besides being outspent (by Romney) 6 to 1, was Newt Gingrich picking up 15 percent of the vote," Zahm said.

If Gingrich doesn't do well in upcoming primaries in Kansas and the U.S. Virgin Islands on Saturday and Alabama, Mississippi and Hawaii next Tuesday, he could fade in importance in Illinois, which Zahm says would work to Santorum's advantage.

"When it comes to the Evangelical voter and the most conservative elements of the Republican party, it's pretty clear that Santorum is by and far the best person for them," Zahm said.

Santorum, unlike Romney and Gingrich, filed for only delegates in 14 of 18 congressional districts in Illinois.

"I'm not going to put a lot of signs and literature into the four districts that don't have delegates running. That allows me to take my somewhat limited amount of collateral material into places that are best used," Zahm said.

The campaign, which in January stood at just a dozen volunteers, has since grown to more than 250 volunteers with a centralized campaign office on Randall Road in Elgin. Still, the Illinois campaign's early beginnings -- right after Santorum's strong showing in Iowa -- may work to its detriment, Yepsen said.

"There are a lot of things they didn't do solely on the basis that they were a new, green, small campaign," Yepsen said.

Santorum will be in Illinois between March 14 and 20th, but his schedule is not yet firmed up, Zahm said.

Despite Ohio's close finish for Romney Tuesday night, Peoria Congressman and Romney backer Aaron Schock said he does not expect a big change in strategy for his Illinois campaign.

"I've been pretty in the loop in terms of what (the national campaign) is doing," Schock said. "I sense a clear direction for where they're headed campaign-wise. I don't see them shaking that up one bit."

Romney's campaign will continue to play up his focus on the economy over social issues, Schock said.

In 2008, "independent women and swing voters went our way," Schock said. "Women voters care about the same thing as any other voters: having jobs for themselves and their spouses. I think as the economy continues to suffer it will be the number one issue."

Schock points to the endorsement of top state party leaders and Illinois delegation members. No congressman has yet publicly backed another candidate, and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford is chairing the campaign for a second time around.

Romney will visit Peoria March 19 and hold fundraisers in Wheaton and Chicago on Election Day. He is likely to have his election night fundraiser in the Western suburbs.

Illinois with Newt Chairman Keith Hanson says the former House speaker's victory in his home state of Georgia and his strong performance in Oklahoma and Tennessee gives him momentum that will carry into Illinois.

Hanson, of Barrington, said he expects Gingrich to play up jobs and energy independence in Illinois, themes Gingrich sounded in his victory speech Tuesday.

"When the president took office we were paying $1.84 a gallon for gas," Hanson said.

Gingrich is expected to spend at least three days in the suburbs leading up to Election Day -- March 14, 15 and 17 -- spending a majority of March 14 in the suburbs, speaking at Judson University in Elgin, a Lincoln Day dinner in Palatine and at Barrington High School.

Romney currently has 415 delegates, Santorum has 176, Gingrich has 105 and Ron Paul has 47.

To secure the GOP nomination, 1,144 are needed.

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