Candidates Find New Battleground In Illinois

After Mitt Romney's weekend victory in Puerto Rico, Republican presidential candidates are setting their sights on Illinois. Also in that state, congressional primary battles are heating up. Host Michel Martin speaks with Chicago Sun-Times columnist Laura Washington, and Washington Post political reporter Nia-Malika Henderson.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we are going to talk more about that very sad case out of New Jersey. A former Rutgers University student was convicted on Friday of a hate crime after he used a webcam to spy briefly on Tyler Clementi, his freshman roommate, while Clementi had an intimate encounter with another man. Days later, Clementi took his own life. We decided to hone in on some of the legal issues raised by this case and this verdict in a few minutes.

But first, we want to talk more about the race for the White House. The contest moves to Illinois tomorrow after Mitt Romney scored a blow out win and more delegates on Sunday in Puerto Rico. In his victory speech, Romney argued that as Puerto Rico win proves that he can win over Latino voters in his bid to challenge President Obama in the fall.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

MITT ROMNEY: You see there that conservative principles and Latino voters go together and that Hispanic voters are going to vote for the Republicans if we stand for something conservative principles that bring growth and good jobs and rising home values. That's what we're going to win. We're going to get Latino voters to help us out.

MARTIN: Romney's rival, former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, is campaigning hard for Illinois, too. That's not the only big ticket contest in the state on Tuesday. Jesse Jackson, Jr. is fighting to keep his seat in Congress in a primary battle and Tea Party activists are taking on some top Republicans in Washington.

Of course, we wanted to talk about all this, so we have called upon two veteran journalists. Laura Washington is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and Nia-Malika Henderson is a national political reporter for The Washington Post. Welcome back to you both. Thank you both so much for joining us.

LAURA WASHINGTON: Great to be here.

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON: Great to be here.

MARTIN: So, Nia-Malika, before we turn to Illinois we want to take a quick look back at the Puerto Rico primary. Mitt Romney trounced the field there. His rival Rick Santorum got some heat for saying he wouldn't support Puerto Rican statehood until English was the main language on the island. He also seemed to be a little confused about what the law requires there. But Nia-Malika, I wanted to ask - and I know a lot of people are bored with this question.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But we have to ask at this point that does Rick Santorum have a path to the nomination? He's got fewer than half of Mitt Romney's delegates at this point?

HENDERSON: You know, the short answer is no. And they seem to know that at this point. They put out a memo last Monday, which essentially says that they're plan isn't so much to gather the 1,144 delegates needed to go into Tampa with a clean win, but really to deny Romney that opportunity. Now Santorum has got a wingman in Newt Gingrich who seems like he's going to stay in this thing and scoop some delegates up along the way. He also has a very, very slim chance at winning this whole thing.

You know, but I think Santorum, by going to Puerto Rico where a place where he had little chance of winning, he's essentially saying he's in this thing. He's not going to seed any ground at all to Romney. You see him pulling within the margin of error in Illinois and that race there, about four or five points difference in the recent polls. So, we'll see what comes out of this week with the Illinois primary Tuesday and then on Saturday in Louisiana, where Santorum should do pretty good.

MARTIN: OK. So, Laura Washington, what are we seeing from the candidates in this final run up to the vote? Who's making a good showing in Illinois, worth noting that Ron Paul and Newt Gingrich didn't even campaign in Puerto Rico so, what's happening in Illinois?

WASHINGTON: Well, Gingrich and Paul did campaign briefly in Illinois last week. A couple of appearances here and there but then they've moved on. But - so the race is really Santorum and Romney. And Romney is spending, as usual, as he has done in every case, millions of dollars in ad buys to try to push back this challenge from Santorum.

I think he's concerned. I think that, as has been pointed out, he is the frontrunner at this point. But he spent a lot of time in downstate Illinois this weekend. Downstate Illinois and Central Illinois are traditionally much more conservative than the collar counties around Chicago. And Santorum has really made a real hard core bid down there, particularly among evangelical voters and Catholic voters. Of course, he's a Catholic himself.

Romney was concerned about that enough that he spent several stops over the weekend. So, it's really neck and neck at this point. Santorum is at a slight disadvantage because he didn't file delegate slates in every single congressional district. So, even if he were to pull out a win, he wouldn't get all of the 54 delegates that are in play.

MARTIN: The same thing that happened in Ohio, wasn't able to capitalize even on the fact that he seemed to have some momentum there. So, just briefly, Laura, what are you seeing there? Are you seeing a sort of momentum one way or the other or is it kind of the same thing we've been seeing throughout the two of them kind of grinding it out?

WASHINGTON: It's hard to tell. It would be an upset certainly if Santorum won because this is socially and an economically moderate state, even among Republicans. But Santorum has surprised people before. There's so much more - what I'm sensing is there's much more energy and excitement around Santorum's campaign. People who are supporting Romney are supporting him because they see him as being the best to beat Obama. They see him as being more of a traditional choice, but Santorum definitely has momentum.

MARTIN: We're talking politics with Laura Washington of the Chicago Sun-Times and The Washington Post Nia-Malika Henderson. We're a day away from primary elections in Illinois. And now I want to wheel around and talk, Laura Washington, about an interesting race on the Democratic side of things. A change in district boundaries has led to Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. being challenged by former Democratic Congresswoman Debbie Halvorson. And Jackson of course is the son of the famed civil rights leader Jesse Jackson.

Size this up for us, Laura Washington. Is Debbie Halvorson a contender? What's her argument about why she needs to replace Jesse Jackson? Very unusual for incumbents to have a strong challenge, isn't it?

WASHINGTON: Absolutely and its because incumbents, especially entrenched incumbents like Jackson are very difficult to beat. Halvorson saw Jackson as being vulnerable coming out of the long federal investigation of Rod Blagojevich and the allegations that he did some horse trading with Jesse Jackson Jr. for Barack Obama's open Senate seat.

Jackson Jr. has denied this through and through. He has said repeatedly he will be vindicated. He has testified in Blagojevich trial that he had no involvement in trading and offering campaign funds for the seat. But that investigation, as I said, has been ongoing. It seems to be dormant now. There's also a house ethics committee investigation is still underway.

Halvorson saw that is making Jackson vulnerable. She lost her seat two years ago. She had been a one-term congresswoman, so she saw this as an opportunity. You're right, there has been redistricting. The district looks - his this 2nd Congressional District looks a little different. It's less African-American, but still majority African-American. There are more southern suburbs in the district and in fact she is now in his district. So, she saw this as an opportunity.

MARTIN: And we do have to just ask about, does race play a role in this race from what you can, ethnicity let's say, from what you can see? As you mentioned, it's a black majority district. The Jackson family regarded highly - certainly has long roots as, you know, activists and Debbie Halvorson is white. Do you have any sense of why the race is playing any role and how people are evaluating these two campaigns?

WASHINGTON: No. Race really officially has not come up in this contest, although Halvorson does understand that she has to appeal across racial boundaries because she doesn't have enough white and perhaps more conservative voters in the district to beat out Jackson. But they've both gone out and wooed African-American ministers, African-American churches. The difference is that Jackson not only has the incumbency and the perception that he's a winner. He also has almost every Democratic Party leader in the state lined up behind him.

MARTIN: You know, its also - Nia-Malika Henderson, it's interesting because redistricting has also created an interesting dynamic in another race that one Republican congressman in the Chicago area will probably lose or may lose because Democrats in Illinois were in charge of redistricting and they drew a new map that puts incumbents Adam Kinzinger and Don Manzullo in the same district. And that's interesting because Kinzinger was a Tea Party favorite when he won his first term in 2010. Who did he unseat? Debbie Halvorson who we were...

HENDERSON: That's right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: ...just talking about. But now, some of the Tea Party people have turned against him. And so, Nia-Malika, I was interested in - and saying he's not conservative enough. And so...

HENDERSON: Right.

MARTIN: So, are Republicans nationally looking at this and kind of trying to figure, you know, how they're, you know, just how to play this? Just - I wonder if it's kind of mirroring the larger battle in the primary race for the White House over what conservatism means here?

HENDERSON: That's exactly right. Yeah, I think that's exactly right. It's a litmus test over conservatism. What it means. Is it fiscal conservative? Is it social conservatism? Is it a little of both? And you saw that play out, in some ways, in Ohio, too, with Representative Kucinich and Representative Kaptur, both the victims of this redistricting. and, of course, Representative Kuchinich, a stalwart, a liberal went down to defeat in that race, and here in Chicago, you have this - or Illinois, you have this same dynamic playing out. A real, you know, test and contest of what it means to be conservative.

On the one hand, you've got Kinzinger, who opposed some budget proposals and some cuts, and then you have, in Manzullo, a 67-year-old. He's been in Congress for quite a while and so Kinzinger is basically arguing, here is Manzullo, who's been in that district for something like 20 years and he hasn't done much - is Kinzinger's argument. And Kinzinger really trying to play up his bona fide Tea Party credentials and saying that he is still fresh blood here in this race and somebody can bring that spirit to Washington.

MARTIN: You know, Laura Washington, it's interesting because Kinzinger has kind of made a splash. I mean, he's an Air Force - you know - veteran, a pilot. I mean, according to one report, when he first came to Congress, he was like the Tom Cruise of the Congress, and I wonder if any of that is helping him now, Laura Washington, or is it not?

WASHINGTON: I think it's helping him. He was perceived when he was elected two years ago as the darling of the Tea Party, but I think he's also seen by the traditional Republican wing of the party as a rising star because of his age, because he's got this war hero persona and he's making the case that it's time for change in Washington. We need fresh blood, new blood.

The irony is that he's angered some of his Tea Party support because he has moved closer to the original party establishment. He has been working closely with John Boehner on some issues and he's voted against some Tea Party interests in Congress. So, in some ways, he's sort of emerging out of the Tea Party mantle and tried to make a case for being a more broad-based conservative, but more broad-based political operator.

MARTIN: OK. Laura, I'm putting you on the spot because you're a columnist. So how do you call that race?

WASHINGTON: That one is really close. That one is really, really close. Again, I think, in this case, Kinzinger has the momentum.

MARTIN: He does? He does? All right.

WASHINGTON: Yeah.

MARTIN: Well, something to watch. Laura Washington is a columnist with Chicago Sun-Times. She joined us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Nia-Malika Henderson is a national political reporter with The Washington Post. She joined us from the studios here - their studios here in Washington, D.C.

Nia-Malika, Laura Washington, thanks so much for joining us.

WASHINGTON: Great to be here.

HENDERSON: Thank you. Take care.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, if you are a fan of the Showtime series, "Homeland," you might want to thank Israel for the idea.

MEIR FENIGSTEIN: This showed a connection between the Israeli television and the American television because they bought the rights for the Israeli miniseries and they created "Homeland" from that.

MARTIN: The American makers of "Homeland" are among those being honored at the Israel Film Festival in Los Angeles. But no need to hop on a plane, we're bringing the festival to you. That's next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

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