Rick Santorum returned home to the suburbs Friday, making the case that his scrappiness, authenticity and experience will help him win a close GOP presidential primary against the front-runner pouring millions of dollars into the state.
"We're going to win this with people. That's how we won Mississippi. That's how we won Alabama. Kansas and Missouri," he told a group of reporters during a stop to greet diners at La Zingara Restaurant in Arlington Heights.
"We won it because we connect with people. ... They like the guy who's scrappy, who's trying to overcome the machine. Folks here in Chicago know about the machine and what it's like to fight the machine. It's hard. But it's possible."
But the varied reaction to Santorum's conservative views suggest his performance could be a mixed bag in the GOP stronghold of the suburbs, with independent suburban voters expected to take Republican ballots as the delegate-rich state stands alone in the spotlight on Tuesday.
Santorum took first to the podium at Hersey High School in Arlington Heights Friday afternoon to speak to about 500 students in a closed event.
Santorum campaign organizer Scott Phelps, of Mount Prospect, approached Hersey after hearing that fellow Republican candidate Newt Gingrich was speaking at Barrington High School earlier in the week. Santorum's stop makes him the fourth presidential candidate in town this week -- along with Gingrich's two-day visit, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama held events in the area Friday.
Romney, the leader in the delegate count, moved to visit the state several days earlier than originally planned, a defensive strategy in response to Santorum's strong performances on Super Tuesday and in the Deep South.
Carrying a pocket-size copy of the U.S. Constitution, Santorum told Hersey students, "The American Revolution changed the world, but this (country) must continue to change, if it is going to remain great."
Obama, Santorum said, "exacerbates divides on many levels by focusing on our differences, the things that pit one side against the other."
At stake in the upcoming presidential election are "these founding principles," Santorum said, which can be restored by cutting spending, repealing health care reform, reforming entitlement programs and doing away with many federal regulations.
Santorum told the group that a heavy regulatory environment is stifling business and job growth. "Not just regulation but the threat of regulation, the uncertainty it creates," he said.
At Hersey, Santorum's speech was cut short by English teacher Dale Dassonville to allow students the opportunity to ask questions, including about the candidate's criticism of Obama's desire for everyone to attend college.
"Others are inclined to different areas," Santorum said, describing a lack of opportunity for other job skills training.
"Not everyone is meant or needs or should go to college," Santorum said. "All work has dignity whether you're going to a blue collar job or you're going to work at McDonald's."
Later in the evening, Santorum was joyously received at Christian Liberty Academy in Arlington Heights, while a small group of Carmel Catholic alumni protesters stood outside the campus, blocked off by yellow caution tape.
Christian Liberty aligns itself with many of his socially conservative viewpoints -- including strong stances against gay marriage and abortion in all cases.
During an invocation, Santorum was praised for "faithfully" bearing attacks on his anti-abortion views.
"This is a campaign about ideas and making life better for each and every one of you," Santorum said.
"This election is about whether we will be the generation that will keep that torch of freedom and opportunity alive in America."
He received no less than seven standing ovations during his speech.
As he exited the school gym, shaking hands along the ropewalk, his campaign song, "Game on" blared in the background.
After leaving the suburbs, Santorum is expected to campaign downstate before departing for Missouri's county caucuses Saturday.
HIs campaign has spent roughly half a million dollars in Illinois so far, compared to Romney's estimated $2.3 million.