Comparing Republican Strategies In Illinois Primary

Robert Siegel talks with Mara Liasson about the potential of Tuesday's Illinois primary to bolster Mitt Romney, bruise Rick Santorum, and begin the endgame in the GOP presidential campaign. It's still possible this will prove to be another disappointing win for the frontrunner.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

It's primary day in the land of Lincoln, as Illinois voters make their picks for the Republican presidential nomination. And Rick Santorum will be watching results from Pennsylvania. He is thinking about Lincoln, though. His campaign event is at 1 Lincoln Square and it is in Gettysburg. Santorum is hoping that Illinois conservative and evangelical voters give him a come-from-behind victory tonight.

Meantime, Mitt Romney hopes to be celebrating a win in the Chicago suburb of Schaumburg. NPR's Mara Liasson joins us now. Hi, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Robert.

SIEGEL: Mitt Romney won really big in Puerto Rico this past weekend, so since the history here is up and down, up and down, I guess he's going to lose in Illinois tonight.

LIASSON: That's right. This has been a no-momentum campaign. A candidate wins one round and loses the next. I think Mitt Romney would like to break that spell tonight. He's hoping not just to slog it out on delegates, but to get the kind of headlines that make him look like a winner, not just winning after midnight by one point, the way he did in Ohio.

So he'd like to win Illinois decisively to help him create that aura of inevitability that he's been trying very hard to create all along.

SIEGEL: How have Romney and Santorum, who are number one and number two in the polls typically, how have they campaigned in Illinois?

LIASSON: They've been pretty much been playing to type. Romney, once again, has vastly outspent Santorum. He's also gotten most of the establishment Republican endorsements in the state. He's been campaigning in the collar counties and the suburbs near metropolitan areas where his kind of voters - more affluent, more educated voters - live.

Santorum, on the other hand, has been focusing on his base - social issue voters, evangelicals. He's been in southern Illinois in small towns. But there has been one role reversal. Mitt Romney gave a speech about economic freedom recently. He seemed to be responding to those criticisms of his campaign that it's been focusing too much on this bloodless argument about delegate math.

Santorum, ironically, is starting to make the argument that, yes, he can get the delegates to stop Romney from getting the 1144 that he needs.

SIEGEL: Speaking of math, by the way, how is the delegate math working out for Romney and Santorum?

LIASSON: Well, so far, Romney has 416 delegates. Santorum has 183. That means that of the remaining contests, Santorum would have to really get a huge percentage of the delegates. He'd have to really almost run the table to prevent Romney from getting 1144. But there is still a possibility that that could happen and that's why you keep on hearing the talk about a contested convention, somebody coming to Tampa without 1144 delegates and having to do some horse trading and maybe multiple ballots.

SIEGEL: That's what Newt Gingrich says he's trying to accomplish. We don't hear a lot about Gingrich or Ron Paul. Have they been campaigning in Illinois?

LIASSON: Well, they haven't campaigned much in Illinois. Gingrich has been focusing on Louisiana, which votes on Saturday. His strategy is to stay in to deny Romney the 1144 delegates he would need to get the nomination. He does not believe, and some polls bear him out, that if he dropped out, his voters would automatically go to Santorum. Some polls suggest they'd be an even split. Of course, Santorum says Gingrich is the barrier to him stopping Romney.

But Gingrich believes that he and Santorum are a kind of tag team and without both of them in the race, Romney would have an easier path to the nomination.

SIEGEL: Mara, there's obviously a divide in the Republican Party and it seems to be deepened by the fight between Romney and Santorum. Do you expect it's a fight that the party will be able to bridge in the general election campaign?

LIASSON: I think they will. There's no doubt there's a divide between the kind of Tea Party, Evangelical conservative activist base and the regular Republicans. But most Republicans I talked to seem confident that in the fall when the goal is to defeat Barack Obama, that, in and of itself, will energize Republicans and bring them together behind the nominee.

SIEGEL: Okay. Thank you, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.

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