CHICAGO — Mitt Romney focused his attacks Monday on President Obama as he campaigned ahead of the Illinois primary, while his chief rival for the GOP nomination — Rick Santorum — blasted the former Massachusetts governor's health care record and predicted that delegates will reject him if the race lasts until this summer's convention.
Fresh off adding to his substantial delegate lead with a victory this weekend in Puerto Rico's primary, Mr. Romney met with potential supporters at a diner in the state capital of Springfield and then delivered an economic speech at the University of Chicago, where he said Mr. Obama has "attacked the cornerstone of American prosperity: our economic freedom."
"The Obama administration's assault on our economic freedom is the principal reason why the recovery has been so tepid — why it couldn't meet their projections, let alone our expectations," Mr. Romney said during the almost 20-minute address to students and faculty. "If we don't change course now, this assault on freedom could damage our economy and the well-being of American families for decades to come."
The focus on Mr. Obama signals the Romney campaign's confidence in the state's Tuesday primary. Whenever Mr. Romney feels his momentum slipping, he turns his attention to attacking his intraparty rivals.
After winning all of Puerto Rico's 20 delegates, Mr. Romney has 521 delegates to Mr. Santorum's 253. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has 136 delegates, while Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has collected the support of 50 delegates, according to the Associated Press.
Polls show Mr. Romney is well-positioned to capture a good number of the 54 delegates up for grabs in Illinois. Mr. Santorum also hopes for a strong showing, though he is eligible to receive at most 44 delegates after he failed to complete full delegate slates in some of the state's 18 congressional districts.
Mr. Santorum, a former senator from Pennsylvania, showed no signs of slowing down on the campaign trail Monday, arguing in a series of radio interviews and at rallies that Mr. Romney's track record on health care makes him a weaker candidate in a head-to-head matchup with Mr. Obama.
Speaking in front of a statue of Ronald Reagan aboard a horse in Dixon, Ill., where the former president grew up, Mr. Santorum said Reagan would be "appalled" by the federal health care overhaul Mr. Obama signed into law in 2010. He warned that Republicans would be giving away the issue if they give the nomination to Mr. Romney, who signed a universal health care system into law in Massachusetts.
"Why would you take that off the table?" he asked the crowd. "That's why you have to help me here in Illinois and help me get elected in the state of Illinois."
During an appearance on CBS' "This Morning," Mr. Santorum questioned whether Mr. Romney shares the core convictions of conservative voters — repeating a line of attack that has dogged Mr. Romney throughout the presidential campaign.
"This is someone who doesn't have a core. He has been on both sides of almost every single issue in the past 10 years," said Mr. Santorum, claiming the health care law enacted in Massachusetts was the blueprint for the federal health care overhaul that Congress passed and Mr. Obama signed.
He also said he is confident that conservatives would tap someone other than Mr. Romney as their nominee at the Republican National Convention if the race is undecided.
"They will not nominate the establishment, moderate candidate from Massachusetts," he said.
As for the rest of the field, Mr. Gingrich has turned his attention to Louisiana, which holds a primary this weekend. Mr. Paul campaigned in Illinois last week, and planned to be on the "Tonight Show" on Tuesday before campaigning the rest of the week in Louisiana.
But attention still centers on Mr. Romney, who has struggled during the campaign to unite Republican voters, but has still amassed some impressive wins.
His come-from-behind victories in Ohio and Michigan primaries showed he maintains significant strength in the industrial Midwest.
In blasting Mr. Obama on Monday, Mr. Romney said the administration's heavy-handed web of tax, spending and regulatory policies is crushing the innovation and financial risk-taking needed for a strong economy. To drive home the point, he suggested that some of the nation's most legendary entrepreneurs would have suffocated under the weight of today's federal government.
He added that "a regulator would have shut down the Wright Brothers for their 'dust pollution.' And the government would have banned Thomas Edison's light bulb."
"Oh, yeah," he quipped, recalling a law designed to phase out the old-style incandescent bulb, "Obama's regulators actually did just that."
The light-bulb change actually was passed by Congress in 2007 and was signed into law by Mr. Obama's Republican predecessor, President George W. Bush.
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