The suburbs proved pivotal in giving Mitt Romney Illinois delegates and restoring much-needed momentum to a campaign that seemed to be stumbling since Super Tuesday. His bonus prize: the bragging rights of taking the home state of the rival he most often mentions on the campaign trail, President Barack Obama.
The former Massachusetts governor swept suburban Cook and the collar counties long known for their moderate conservatism, an area rivals Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich crisscrossed late last week, stopping at schools, restaurants and community centers in the attempt to swing votes their way and prove the winds had changed.
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But in the end, neither Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, or Gingrich, the former House speaker from Georgia, were able to match Romney's money and organizational efforts -- both the campaign and its Super PAC pouring an estimated $3 million into the state on Romney's behalf. Romney is estimated to have outspent Santorum 20 to 1 in the Chicago area alone.
It was a protracted, expensive battle some argue didn't have to be waged -- had Romney's Illinois campaign not backed off challenges to the petitions of Santorum's delegates.
But Tuesday evening, Romney triumphantly claimed an early victory before a throng of supporters in Schaumburg roughly an hour after the polls closed. "Hundreds of thousands of people in Illinois today joined our cause," Romney said.
"The future is better and brighter than these troubled times," he said, noting "Americans need a president who believes in us."
While Santorum claimed victory downstate and at the Indiana and Iowa borders, Romney dominated the Chicago suburbs, claiming close to 60 percent of the popular vote in Cook and Lake counties, and more than 50 percent in Kane, DuPage and McHenry counties.
He was also projected to earn 41 of Illinois' 54 directly elected delegates, and Santorum 10.
The race was expected to be far closer just days ago.
Romney, who was originally scheduled to arrive in Illinois on Monday, beefed up campaign efforts in Ilinois over the weekend, stopping, among other places, at a Rosemont diner Friday and at the Donald Sullivan Community Center in Vernon Hills Sunday.
Keeping his focus strictly on the economy, Romney, a former venture capitalist, called both Santorum and Obama "economic lightweights" with limited governing experience.
Santorum, who worked to fire up his conservative Christian base in the suburbs, was ultimately damaged by his campaign's lack of money and weak organizational structure.
Spending roughly $500,00 in Illinois -- about one-sixth of Romney's Illinois budget -- Santorum pledged to "win this" primary with people.
"We would have liked to do better in the suburbs but it wasn't meant to be," Jon Zahm, Santorum's Illinois director said, noting money ultimately won out.
Romney's fight for a win was more difficult and expensive than it had to be, some say, as his Illinois campaign missed an opportunity that could have knocked Santorum out of the running in a number of the state's congressional districts.
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.
The petitions of Santorum delegates were initially challenged by Romney's Illinois campaign in January, but the challenges were withdrawn days later.
Senior Republican operatives say the campaign was nervous about a challenge to its own petitions -- the failure to have Romney's statement of candidacy notarized in Illinois.
"You can make bad decisions and still win elections," David Yepsen, Director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, said.
A comfortable victory, he said, "tends to make people overlook some of the mistakes that you had."
Rutherford Tuesday called the petition challenges "a nonissue." He credited Romney's win to a strong ground game and organized delegates, as well as Romney's extended trip to Illinois.
"For them to be here for so long was huge," he said.
Looking ahead to primaries in Louisiana and Wisconsin, Congressman and Romney backer Aaron Schock of Peoria said Illinois helped consolidate the conservative vote.
"I think even the most conservative candidates are beginning to coalesce behind one candidate, who is Mitt Romney," he said.
•Staff writer Jake Griffin contributed