DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Candidate Rick Santorum, for his part, was far outside Chicago yesterday, barnstorming through some of Illinois' smaller cities. Santorum is hoping that rural and more conservative voters will somehow push his campaign over the top, in a state where he trails in the polls and has again been vastly outspent by Mitt Romney.
NPR's Brian Naylor reports.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The photo op of the day for Santorum was in Dixon, the boyhood home of President Ronald Reagan. Standing before a statue of a young Reagan atop a horse on the Dixon riverfront, Santorum reminded the crowd that Reagan, too, fought long odds. And, in fact, lost an attempt at the Republican nomination when he challenged incumbent Gerald Ford.
RICK SANTORUM: And Reagan ran that insurgent campaign in 1976 and people were saying why don't you get out of the race? You have no chance of winning. And he fought. He won 11 states in 1976. I might add, just parenthetically...
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SANTORUM: ...that if we happen to win Illinois that will be the 11th state that I've won in this election.
NAYLOR: Santorum told the crowd that President Obama's health care makeover, which Republicans deride as Obamacare, is the top issue in the campaign. It's an issue Santorum says front-runner Mitt Romney will be unable to use against the president in the fall, since he backed a version in Massachusetts as governor.
SANTORUM: Why would the Republican party put up a nominee who takes that issue off the table, who takes the health care issue and government mandates both at the state and federal level which he has supported, why would the Republican party nominate someone on the most important issue of the day - freedom Reagan's freedom. Why would we take that off the table?
NAYLOR: Jim Plass was among those at the midday rally.
JIM PLASS: I'm from Dixon, Illinois, yeah, just a few houses from Ronald Reagan's house.
NAYLOR: Plass plans to vote for Santorum in the primary today, but in the fall, he says he'd support whomever the Republicans nominate.
PLASS: Romney is more of a wishy-washy. He's not a true conservative, I believe.
NAYLOR: But you would support him?
PLASS: I would definitely support him.
NAYLOR: Over Obama?
PLASS: Any of the candidates we have out there now in the Republican Party would be better than Obama.
NAYLOR: Santorum's next stop was Moline, home to John Deere tractor, and where Santorum found himself in a bit of a rough patch. Speaking in the Moline Club, an Arts and Craft style ballroom, Santorum tried to make the point that the economy wasn't the only issue in the campaign, but wound up giving Romney plenty of fodder.
SANTORUM: I don't care what the unemployment rate's going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. There's something more foundational that's going on here. We have one nominee who says he wants to run the economy. What kind of conservative says that the president runs the economy?
NAYLOR: After Romney pounced, Santorum, who often points out he has no teleprompter, nor speech writer for that matter, later allowed there are times when you say some things and you wish you had a do-over. Santorum, has struggled in northern industrial states like Ohio and Michigan, and acknowledges it might take something of a miracle to prevail in Illinois.
SANTORUM: I predict if we are able to do what I know most people think is impossible, which is to carry the state of Illinois, that will fundamentally change this election like no other contest to date. It will put us in a position where they'll stop talking about delegates, and start talking about how are we going to stop rick Santorum from being the nominee? That's what the establishment will be talking about.
NAYLOR: Santorum says he's been outspent by Romney and the superPAC backing him by as much as 10 to one in Illinois. After a primary night rally in Gettysburg Pennsylvania, he travels to Louisiana, ahead of Saturday's primary there, where he hopes voters will be more receptive, and a disparity in campaign money may not be as big a factor.
Brian Naylor, NPR News, Peoria.
GREENE: Of course, a few days in politics can feel like an eternity, but there are some poll numbers out of Louisiana that suggest it will be more welcoming for Santorum than Illinois. In last week's poll by WWLTV in New Orleans, Santorum held a four point lead over Romney, still with 25 percent remaining undecided.
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GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.
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