The Windy City is more interested in sunny weather and Saint Patrick's Day than the coming primary. Can Romney get moderate Republicans enthused enough to vote?
With the temperature outside in the 70s, the priest at Old St. Patrick's Church in Chicago was as taken aback as anyone by Saturday's uncharacteristically gorgeous, late-winter hint of summer.
"Who would have imagined that it would take a Jewish mayor to give us weather like this on St. Patrick's Day?" he said during Saturday mass, alluding to Rahm Emanuel, the city's first Jewish mayor, whose first winter as boss at least brought him ample savings in rock salt due to the mostly shovel-free conditions.
Similarly, who would have imagined it would have taken a torrent of negative ads by Mormon Mitt Romney to get at least a few people vaguely interested in Tuesday's primary?
By one television ad executive's guesstimate, Romney has dwarfed seeming chief rival Rick Santorum with a late Chicago-area ad buy in excess of $2 million.
The political world has designated Illinois as the next "critical" moment in the GOP presidential fracas, until Wednesday morning, when it will be on then-"critical" Louisiana, regardless of what happens in Illinois. And Romney's justifiable anxiety and comparatively overwhelming resources are on display.
By one television ad executive's guesstimate, he's dwarfed seeming chief rival Rick Santorum with a late Chicago-area ad buy in excess of $2 million. That includes roughly $1 million from a pro-Romney Super PAC, said the executive, with Santorum's buy a pittance and Newt Gingrich nowhere to be seen.
Most of the buy derides Santorum as economically ignorant and a creature of ever-evil Washington, and is generally found on the cable news channels (although there were some ads running during this weekend's March Madness games). The tactical theory behind that placement is presumably that there will be a modest to low turnout, so one might as well target the political diehards tuned to cable.
The Chicago area is important since a majority of primary votes will come from the region and Romney should in theory do well here, especially in suburbs filled with prosperous, college-educated Republicans of moderate bent. It will be tougher in the more conservative central and downstate parts of the state.
But the same problems which have plagued Romney elsewhere are in evidence in Illinois, despite its long tradition of moderate Republican politicians and a GOP establishment firmly in the Romney camp. Doubts about his conservative bona fides meld with a lack of interest to at least raise the possibility that ever-grim Santorum could spring an upset.
It was revealing that a prime local channel's Saturday night newscast gave far more attention to that day's St. Patrick's Day Parade, and an interview with the guy in charge of dying the Chicago River green, than to the presidential primary.
It was much the same Sunday night, with another Chicago station being far more interested in a local state senate race involving an incumbent just arrested and indicted for taking a $7,000 payoff from a trusted campaign worker for what he assumed was help given to a daycare operator seeking a state grant. Alas, the aide was working undercover for federal prosecutors and the daycare operator was a fiction.
More telling was a Fox poll last week suggesting that nearly half of self-identified Republican primary voters were not the least bit enthused about their presidential alternatives. Of that group of the politically unenthused, the largest were those who said they'd probably vote for Romney.
"I happen to think that Romney will win," said Tom Cross, the decidedly sober leader of the Republicans in the state House of Representatives. He echoes a certain conventional wisdom about Romney exploiting strength in the Chicago suburbs and having a generally far better state organization than Santorum or Gingrich, each of whom he suspects will hurt one another.
In addition, there is his belief that the state's highest-in-the-Midwest unemployment, its chaotic state finances, and gas prices verging on $5 a gallon play to Romney's strength as the most economically trustworthy of the GOP rivals.
Perhaps. But there is also the possibility that the failure of two Republican moderates in a 2010 GOP gubernatorial primary is prologue to Tuesday's vote. Throw in doubts about what Romney stands for, an exit from the Gingrich ranks to Santorum and perhaps one has the making of an upset.
Even Cross concedes, "It's been a long, pretty brutal primary, with Romney beat up by the conservative wing. People are carrying around a lot of negatives, though I think that, once the primaries are over, they'll rally around the nominee."
Until then, one is vividly reminded, amid Chicago's uncharacteristically gorgeous weather, that most people don't really care much about the presidential race.
Serving as parental overseer on my block as a bunch of kids were playing Sunday, I overheard one nine-year-old ask another what he'd given up for Lent. The response was, "Beating up my brother and not eating Cheese-Its."
The kids don't know about the primary and, more relevant, their parents don't seem to care. Maybe we can blame the latter on climate change, and the early opportunity for the adults to plant their gardens and thankfully not be housebound to watch political ads on cable TV.
But, of course, neither Romney nor Santorum claims to believe in climate change. So if they wonder about lousy turnout after the polls close Tuesday, they need not look skyward but, instead, into the nearest mirror.