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Romney, Santorum take fight to Illinois

GOP leader wins Puerto Rico primary

- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 18, 2012

VERNON HILLS, Ill. — After trading barbs with Rick Santorum on the airwaves Sunday, Mitt Romney got in the last word with a lopsided victory in Puerto Rico's Republican presidential primary, taking all 20 of the territory's pledged Republican delegates and extending his lead in the march toward the nomination.

Puerto Rican election officials called the race early Sunday evening, with Mr. Romney receiving more than 80 percent of the vote.

Even before the results were announced, the focus of the Republican campaign already had shifted to Tuesday's primary in President Obama's home state of Illinois, where Mr. Romney touted his U.S. territory win as proof that his message is resonating with Hispanic voters — a key voting bloc in the presidential election.

"People who don't think that Latinos will vote for a Republican, need to take a look at Puerto Rico and see there that conservative principles and Latino voters go together," he told a crowd gathered here in a community center gymnasium for a town-hall event. "Hispanic voters are going to vote for Republicans if we stand for something: conservative principles that bring growth and good jobs and rising home values."

"That is how we are going to win. We're going to get Latino voters to help us out," he said.

The comments came toward the tail end of a day that saw Mr. Romney and Mr. Santorum, the two Republican front-runners, continue to rip each other apart on the television talk-show circuit and on the campaign trail.

Mr. Romney, looking to cement his lead in the polls here, made three campaign stops in Illinois, hammering on the message that his business experience makes him the party's "best and perhaps the only chance" to recapture to the White House.

He dismissed both Mr. Santorum and President Obama as "economic lightweights."

"I don't think we are going to replace an economic lightweight with another economic lightweight," Mr. Romney told a crowd at the Machine Shed Restaurant in Rockford. "My career was spent in the economy. I didn't learn about the economy just reading about it or hearing about it at the faculty lounge at Harvard or debating it in Congress."

"To beat Barack Obama," he said, "it is going to take someone who understands the economy within his bones, and I do — and I will beat him with that understanding."

Mr. Santorum, who is expected back in Illinois on Monday for a final blitz ahead of Tuesday's primary, spent Sunday campaigning in Louisiana and making the rounds on the television talk-show circuit, where he trained his fire on Mr. Romney.

"Running a business is not the same as being president of the United States," Mr. Santorum said in an appearance on CNN's "State of the Union."

"If Gov. Romney thinks he is the CEO of America and can run and operate the country, he doesn't understand what conservatives want," Mr. Santorum said. "We don't want someone in Washington, D.C., to manage the economy. We want to get Washington out of our lives, to reduce these mandates, get rid of things like Romneycare at the federal level, which we call Obamacare."

The former senator from Pennsylvania said a Romney candidacy would undermine Republicans on the issues that helped propel them into power in 2010.

"The same issues I'm out there campaigning on against Gov. Romney are the same issues I'm going to campaign against Barack Obama on," Mr. Santorum said on ABC's "This Week."

"The government overreach in health care, and cap and trade, trying to control the manufacturing and energy sector of the economy. … Unfortunately, Gov. Romney and Barack Obama are in the same place," he said.

Mr. Santorum began the day by saying he was in the race "for the long haul," but he sidestepped the question of whether he would fight Mr. Romney all the way to the Republican convention in August.

Mr. Romney, meanwhile, told "Fox News Sunday" that a winning Republican candidate can't run a "shoestring" campaign and expect to beat the incumbent president.

"In a campaign, one of the things you recognize from Day One, is that you need to organize a financial operation to make sure you can run the campaign," Mr. Romney said.

The former Massachusetts governor has not been shy about outspending his fellow Republican challengers. His campaign has raised about $63 million and spent about $55 million, according to Fox News.

Mr. Santorum, however, said Sunday that Mr. Romney's inability, despite his fundraising prowess, to put away his GOP rivals for the nomination is a red flag.

"This is a primary process where somebody had a huge advantage, huge money advantage, huge advantage of establishment support, and he hasn't been able to close ... even come close to closing the deal. That tells you that there's a real flaw there," the candidate said on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday.

With 1,144 delegates needed to claim the nomination, the win in Puerto Rico puts Mr. Romney's delegate haul at 521. Mr. Santorum is second with 253, Newt Gingrich has 136 and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has 50, according to the Associated Press.

With 44 percent of the ballots counted, Mr. Romney received 83 percent of the territory's vote to Mr. Santorum's 8 percent, Mr. Gingrich's 2 percent and Mr. Paul's 1 percent. Because Mr. Romney won a majority, Puerto Rican election officials said he would receive all 20 pledged delegates.

The wire service reported that voter turnout was light on the predominantly Catholic island, with officials predicting that about 150,000 people cast ballots.

Francisco Rodriguez, a 76-year-old architect, told the AP he was backing Mr. Romney in part because "he has a stronger connection to Puerto Rico and that will help us in the process of becoming a state."

He had kind words for Mr. Santorum, describing him as a "person of faith, a good Catholic." But he said he thinks the former senator hurt himself with his statements that English would have to be the official language if the U.S. territory were to seek statehood.

"In Puerto Rico, we get along fine with both languages," Mr. Rodriguez said.

After Tuesday's contest in Illinois, the battleground shifts to Saturday's primary in Louisiana.

Tim Devaney reported from Washington.

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