Week In Politics: Illinois Primary, Mikulski Milestone

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David Greene talks to regular Morning Edition contributor Cokie Roberts about the week ahead in politics.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. David Greene is with us the next couple of weeks.

David, good morning.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Thank you. Good morning to you, Steve.

This weekend, Mitt Romney chalked up another victory in his bid to become the Republican presidential nominee, this time in Puerto Rico. The former Massachusetts governor got about 80 percent of the votes cast Sunday, giving him all 20 delegates from the Caribbean territory. Rick Santorum finished a distant second. But tomorrow, Illinois holds its primary and Santorum is hoping that it could be, in his words, a game changer.

And here to help assess where we are in this political season is Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, BYLINE: Hi, David.

GREENE: Well, we've heard a lot about potential game changers. Is there anything about Illinois that gives a real chance for this to truly change the dynamic in some way?

ROBERTS: Well, if Santorum wins it, it certainly would be a game shifter, anyway. It would show that he could win in a state that's different from the states that he has been winning in, which are states where about 75 to 85 percent of voters call themselves born-again Christians. That's not true in Illinois, though it has been trending a lot more conservative in recent years.

What is true is that Santorum keeps piling up delegates under the new Republican rules and he hangs in there. So while Romney was in Illinois yesterday, Santorum was in Louisiana - which has its primaries next Saturday and where the voter profile is much more friendly toward Santorum. Four years ago, when Romney lost Illinois to John McCain, which, by the way, was in early February, by the way...

GREENE: Right.

ROBERTS: McCain got all the delegates.

But now they'll be split up among the Republican contenders because it's proportional representation. So on it goes.

GREENE: Those rules allow the loser to still pick up delegates.

ROBERTS: There you go.

GREENE: Speaking about potential game changers, Newt Gingrich lost the two Southern primaries last week that he himself had said were really crucial to his candidacy. But he says he's still hanging on and he's going to hang on till the Republican convention in Tampa. What effect does that have on the race?

ROBERTS: Well, I think maybe he does, maybe he doesn't hang on. But there was an interesting Gallup poll this past week showing that without Newt, Santorum does not become his heir. In fact, according to that poll, you take Gingrich out of the race and the second choice of many of his voters is Romney, not Santorum. And so I think the way to interpret this is that voters are not just going conservative but they're going for candidates they like.

And one thing that I find quite fascinating about the Gingrich candidacy is that in these exit polls, voters say that he has the best experience to be president. Now, these are same voters who say they hate the government. And of course Gingrich has spent his adult life in government. But they think that he has the best experience. Not Romney, who has spent the weekend talking about he's an economic heavyweight, and you need a heavyweight to defeat lightweight Obama. But voters aren't buying that from Romney so far. What they are buying from him is that he can defeat Barack Obama in November.

GREENE: And Romney, if I understand correctly, has been out there using this boxing metaphor to try and attract women voters.

ROBERTS: Well, he did over the weekend, particularly on the subject of gas prices. He talked about how hard it is for moms trying to cope with getting their kids to school and getting their kids to lessons after school, and paying these high gas prices. And he said the president should fire his gas-hike trio - the secretaries of Energy, Interior, and the EPA administrator.

But, you know, he's having a problem with wooing women, even though they have been going for him to some degree in these states. And that is - one is that his rhetoric is only slightly more nuanced than Santorum's rhetoric on some hot-button social issues. But also, in places like Illinois you just can't count on enough women showing up. In the last election, 2008, there were only 43 percent of the Illinois Republican electorate in the primary. And that's, you know, that's just not enough to make a victory.

GREENE: Cokie Roberts, we should mention one very important woman in Congress. Congress is celebrating the term of Barbara Mikulski as the longest serving woman in Congress. How do you characterize her tenure?

ROBERTS: Collegial. She was elected in 1976 and she now pulls herself up to her full 4-foot-11 to talk about the women of the Senate. There are now 17. There were two when she first went. It's the last bastion of bipartisanship in the Senate, where she says the Senate women are not solo acts, we work together to get things done. And that's why they're hailing her this week.

GREENE: Mikulski from Maryland, of course.

All right. Thanks, Cokie. It's political commentator Cokie Roberts, who joins us most Mondays.

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