With Rick Santorum close on his heels in Illinois, GOP front-runner Mitt Romney returned to the suburbs Sunday, revising an earlier strategy to more seriously court voters in what is considered to be his stronghold.
The former Massachusetts governor is feeling the heat in the battle for the state's 54 directly elected delegates -- a development those close to the campaign say could have been avoided had Romney's Illinois campaign taken the opportunity to challenge the petitions of Santorum's delegates.
Romney, during an early morning visit to a Rosemont pancake house Friday, referred to only one opponent -- President Barack Obama. On Sunday, he inserted Santorum's name into the mix during speeches in Moline, Rockford and Vernon Hills. Sunday is the day of the week the Mormon's campaign typically takes as a day of rest.
At Vernon Hills' Donald Sullivan Community Center, Romney swung at both the president and the former Pennsylvania senator's lack of governing experience.
"We're not going to be successful replacing an economic lightweight, if we choose an economic lightweight to be our nominee," he said.
Romney reiterated his belief that this election is about the "soul of America, and what kind of nation we're going to be."
"There is today a stream of thought in Washington that government can do a better job guiding our lives and guiding our economy than free people," he said. "They want the heavy hand of government to replace the free enterprise and free market system."
He implored the crowd to "look at the choices we have."
A focus on the economy has been a trademark in the Romney campaign, as Santorum attempts to fire up supporters with his socially conservative views that include opposing abortion in all cases, gay marriage and pornography. The divide in rhetoric reflects a divide in the party, with wealthy voters, moderate Republicans and women largely considered to be drawn to Romney and Santorum considered to be the candidate for Evangelical voters, very conservative voters and those who make less than $100,000 a year, according to the Washington Post.
But in Illinois, a "beauty contest" state where voters separately pick their presidential preference and delegates, the fight for a win by Romney has been perhaps more difficult than necessary despite the muscle of the populous suburbs, which Santorum described during a visit to Arlington Heights Friday as a "tougher area" with a "more moderate brand of Republicanism."
That's because Romney's Illinois campaign did not follow through with challenges to Santorum delegates' nominating petitions back in January, missing an opportunity that could have knocked Santorum out of the running in as many as 14 out of the 18 congressional districts in the state.
Delegates for Santorum filed the minimum legal number of petition signatures to appear on the ballot in just four congressional districts, a review of petition signatures found. In 10 others, delegates who filed signatures came far short of the 600 required to appear on the ballot, a review of those signatures found. The campaign didn't file any delegates in four districts.
"They were woefully short," state Treasurer and Romney Illinois campaign Chairman Dan Rutherford said.
The petitions of Santorum delegates were initially challenged in January, but those challenges were withdrawn shortly after they were filed, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. Rutherford said he spoke with former state Rep. Al Salvi, of Wauconda, an honorary co-chairman of Santorum's campaign.
"He said, 'We know we're short,'" Rutherford told the Daily Herald last week, referring to Santorum's petition signatures in congressional districts 1, 2, 3, 10, 11, 12, 15, 16, 17 and 18.
"That's when I visited with the Boston (Romney national campaign) folks and we said, 'OK, let it be,'" Rutherford said.
Jon Zahm, Santorum's Illinois director, also had filed a challenge against Romney on the basis that his statement of candidacy was notarized in Massachusetts, not Illinois. That challenge also was withdrawn. Rutherford has said that challenge "really did not have standing," a statement Zahm disputes.
Senior Republican operatives closely involved with the Romney campaign have described the Illinois strategy as "bad judgment all the way around." They have told the Daily Herald that national campaign workers were flown in to collect signatures for Romney.
"It is up to the Romney state party operations to be aware of all the rules and technicalities and get his people on the ballot," one source said.
"Right now it wouldn't be costing Mitt Romney $2 million for these delegates. We watched how this Illinois operation was going. It was a big goof not going forward with those (challenges)."
Romney's campaign is estimated to have spent $2.3 million in Illinois compared to Santorum's $500,000.
Rutherford said he is confident in his decision to withdraw the challenge of Santorum's petitions, and is not "reflecting and saying I wish I would have (done otherwise)."
On Sunday, he described the Romney campaign's revised plan for added stops throughout Illinois as "all strategic."
"When you go to the polls do not just stop at Mitt Romney," Rutherford told the crowd at Vernon Hills Sunday night. "Will you do us a big favor? Vote for those delegates."
Following his victory in Puerto Rico Sunday, Romney has 501 delegates, compared to Santorum's 253 and Gingrich's 136, according to The Associated Press.