Romney's Odds in Obamaland

If the state's recent Republican voting history is predictive, Mitt may be in for a stunning primary upset in Illinois.

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Reuters

When Mitt Romney makes it to Illinois, the heart of supposedly moderate Obamaland, he will be in a far bigger fix than he could have imagined before his ongoing stumbles.

In fact, Tuesday's now unexpectedly important primary could land him in political hot water despite the state's history of smart, moderate Republican governors and a recent legacy of diehard conservatives flaming out in high-profile races.

On the surface, Illinois's 69 convention delegates should be easy pickings for Romney, with 54 directly elected Tuesday, 12 picked at a state GOP convention in June, and three being party officials. Most of the votes are in the Chicago metropolitan area, home of Democrats and lots of moderate suburban Republicans, with his huge fundraising advantage giving him a leg up on Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich in an exceedingly expensive television market.

It is a state with a rich tradition of very successful and distinctly moderate Republican politicians, including the late U.S. Senator Charles Percy and the distinctly alive former governors James Thompson and Jim Edgar. U. S. Senator Mark Kirk, the state's highest-ranking Republican, is of decidedly centrist stripe, even if he has done his fair share of pandering to folks on the right.

But while the past need not be prologue, Romney had best analyze what amounts to a rather disarming apples-to-apples comparison of recent vintage: the 2010 Illinois Republican gubernatorial primary.

I'd initially figured that Illinois would be a cakewalk for Romney, even with his much chronicled bumps in the road and inability to lure strong conservatives. That was until Thomas Bowen, a political aide to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, reminded me of that 2010 race and a breakdown of the vote. It's why the smart money might well have Santorum primed for a head-turning upset.

In 2010, the Republican primary saw two candidates, Kirk Dillard and Andy McKenna, vying for the moderate Republican vote. In some ways, the two men could be said to comprise different facets of Mitt Romney, mixing his past moderate tack on social issues with his business background. Think of them as the Romney-like contenders.

The four other serious candidates in that seven-person field were conservatives; Bill Brady, a legislator from the state's conservative southern portion, led that group. Think of them as the Santorum-Gingrich proxies.

Brady won by a few hundred votes over Dillard, barely getting 20 percent of the vote, and would later lose the general election to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn (whose illustrious predecessor, Rod Blagojevich, headed off to federal prison in Colorado on Thursday). As telling was the combination of the Dillard and McKenna primary vote, right around 39 percent.

Consider that 39 percent total to be in theory a Mitt Romney vote and arguably next week's ceiling for the beleaguered frontrunner.

Then consider the remaining 61 percent back in 2010 that went to the more conservative candidates. Then factor in how Romney, while stressing his more conservative positions, has been doing poorly with exactly the sort of moderates and independents who went for Dillard and McKenna. You see the outlines of trouble.

But there's more.

Dillard and McKenna -- again, view them as Romney -- got 26 percent of the vote in Cook County, which includes Chicago and its immediate suburbs. The prime conservative opponents got 30 percent. Romney has spent about $2 million already in Illinois and will unleash a huge TV buy this weekend in the Chicago market.

That TV buy in theory could help in luring moderates and independents in the Chicago area. But if Romney continues to strut his conservatives bona fides, that probably won't work as those prospective voters scratch their head about who he really is. And that's important because, if 2010 is a hint of things to come, Romney, like the Dillard-McKenna combination, will get absolutely creamed in the rest of the state, so he needs a gargantuan boost in the Chicago area. He needs a huge moderate turnout in the Chicago area to do well.

To complicate matters for Romney, the top state GOP politicians supporting him, notably Treasurer Dan Rutherford and Kirk, either don't have the juice to deliver many votes (Rutherford) or really can't (Kirk is recovering from a stroke and unable to campaign). Then there are Santorum and Gingrich. Bowen and several others interpret the 2010 vote as suggesting that Santorum is hard-wired for somewhere around 30 percent of Tuesday's vote; meaning that's his floor. But throw in the possibility that what might have been a decent Gingrich vote falls prey to a belittling of his chances following poor performances in Alabama and Mississippi.

So a good chunk of an initially Gingrich-inclined vote could easily swing the way of Santorum, who benefits from the portrait of a candidate with growing momentum, if not necessarily all that many delegates.

Finally, throw in his Roman Catholicism, which could lure votes in the heavily-Catholic Chicago area, and the coincidence of his having graduated high school in suburban Mundelein (he attended Carmel High School for one year, in 1976) and he might have some advantages outweighing a lack of funds.

A Santorum a victory in Obamaland next week would be stunning -- but it wouldn't necessarily be a surprise.

Presented by

James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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