Will Apathy Be Romney's Downfall in Illinois?

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?

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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.

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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