- Associated Press - Friday, March 16, 2012

CHICAGO (AP) — After two Deep South losses, Mitt Romney is intensifying his campaign efforts in the economically challenged Midwest — a friendly region for him — in hopes of regaining his front-runner’s momentum when Illinois holds its Republican presidential primary Tuesday.

But the race for Illinois and its cache of 54 delegates is tighter than might have been expected, thanks to Rick Santorum’s recent rise in opinion polls here and elsewhere.

Romney is clearly mindful of the threat. He and his allies are pouring money into the state, near Michigan where he grew up and his father was governor. Romney won the Michigan primary on Feb. 28.

Logistically, he’s also looking to take advantage of Santorum’s failure to get the signatures needed to ensure he’s on the ballot statewide in Illinois.

And Romney’s on the attack.

“We are not going to be successful in replacing an economic lightweight if we nominate an economic lightweight,” the former Massachusetts governor said Friday during an early morning stop in suburban Rosemont near Chicago. The criticism, focusing on the economy, which is the voters’ No. 1 concern, was a one-two punch against both President Barack Obama and Republican Santorum. “I am an economic heavy weight, and I know how to fix this economy,” Romney declared.

Democrat Obama was fundraising and campaigning in Illinois, too, on Friday and taking his own shots at the Republicans — for negative campaigning.

Noting he was in “the land of Lincoln,” Obama said the Republicans weren’t exactly appealing to — in the Civil War president’s words — “the better angels of our nature.” He told his audience at a fundraiser in Chicago, his adopted hometown, “I’m thinking maybe some Lincoln will rub off on them while they’re here.”

In a wry reference to the heated Republican race, he said, “We’ve got some guests in Illinois this week. Apparently they have not wrapped up on the other side.”

Romney, after Illinois, headed to campaign in Puerto Rico, where he’s hoping to win Sunday’s primary.

Santorum, himself just back from Puerto Rico, faces the same obstacles in Illinois that he has in previous contests — a lack of money and campaign organization. But his message that he’s the true conservative in the race could resonate strongly in the rural areas of the state. He was spending Friday and Saturday campaigning in some of Illinois’ small towns, including Effingham.

Beyond this state, the former Pennsylvania senator is focused on Louisiana, where he hopes to continue winning in the conservative South on March 24.

In Missouri, en route to Illinois from his campaign swing in Puerto Rico, Santorum sounded confident. He said that, despite Romney’s heavy advertising presence and organizational advantage, he could post his first primary victory in an upper Midwestern industrial state. He argued he offered a conservative vision for the country.

“We’re being outspent 10-to-1 on television in Illinois, and I still think we have a chance to win Illinois,” Santorum told a rally in Osage Beach, Mo. “Because without a vision the people will perish.”

Illinois is the highest profile contest of the coming week, and it kicks off a two-week series of five contests before an April lull in the GOP nomination fight that could well stretch into summer. As Obama focuses on the general election, Romney is struggling to clinch the GOP nomination, even though he’s well ahead in the fight for delegates to the August GOP national convention. He needs to win 1,144, and is on pace to secure that number by June.

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