Romney backers here looking ahead with an eye on the rear-view mirror

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Republican presidential candidate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum speaks during his election night party, Tuesday, March 13, 2012, in Lafayette, La. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

If Mitt Romney and his supporters weren’t worried about Tuesday’s GOP presidential primary election in Illinois, they would not be spending so much time and money here.

Romney even cut short a campaign trip to Puerto Rico after an appearance Saturday morning. The U.S. territory holds its primary Sunday, and he had planned to spend the weekend there.

Most of Illinois’ Republican establishment signed on to Romney’s campaign back when they assumed he’d have the nomination all wrapped up by now.

Even if more conservative options such as Rick Santorum or Newt Gingrich were still in the mix at this point, Illinois – with its history of electing moderate Republican governors and senators – was supposed to be a firewall against conservative uprisings.

Country Club Republican donors want a moderate who can steal independent votes from President Obama in November, not some Tea Party-blessed holy warrior who they fear will scare suburban women.

And Illinois – the theory went – is the place where moderates such as Sen. Mark Kirk and Gov. Jim Edgar and Jim Thompson get elected.

But it’s also the state where moderate Kirk Dillard was supposed to beat conservative Bill Brady for the GOP nod for governor two years ago.

It was the state where moderate Loleta Didrickson was supposed to beat Peter Fitzgerald for the GOP U.S. Senate nomination in 1998; where Bob Kustra would breeze past Al Salvi in 1996; where George Ranney was supposed to have an easy time against Judy Koehler in 1986.

Actually, as those four upsets show, Illinois conservatives have a pretty good record of surprising the party-blessed choices. And that is why Romney and his supporters are leaving nothing to chance, spending more than $2 million on attack ads against Santorum to drive his numbers down the way they did in Ohio, allowing Romney to squeak by as victor.

Romney will almost certainly be able to claim one victory on Tuesday night. He will probably win more delegates than Santorum, who was unable to field slates of delegates in four of the state’s 18 congressional districts.

And while Santorum himself Friday night sought to lower expectations, noting Illinois has even less friendly rural territory for him than Ohio or Michigan, his boosters say he could win the bragging rights of the non-binding “beauty contest” on the ballot that merely asks voters who they would most like for president.

“I think a conservative stands a good chance in Illinois. It’s not unheard of. There’s a lot of history,” Salvi said Friday as he watched Santorum work the crowd at La Zingara. Salvi was never expected to beat the establishment’s choice of Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in 1996.

“The Illinois Republican Party doesn’t deal up a lot of conservatives for statewide office,” Santorum said. “You have an opportunity now to sort of ‘fight city hall’ if you will,” Santorum said. “All the Republican establishment is lined up behind Romney. Hopefully, all the conservative voices in Illinois will say: This is the best chance for us to beat Barack Obama – to have a clear choice, not to have someone who is just a little different.”

From the number of pro-Romney television commercials and robo-calls he’s getting, University of Illinois at Springfield Political Science Professor Kent Redfield thinks that Santorum’s wins in Alabama and Mississippi have prompted Romney to step up his game.

“I don’t think they’re panicking but I think they’re definitely taking this more seriously,” Redfield said. “I wouldn’t discount Santorum doing OK on Tuesday, but certainly, just based on demographics, this should be a state that Romney can win and certainly will win [on] the delegate side.”

Will the turnout be higher in the moderate closer-ring suburbs such as Rosemont where Romney stopped Friday? Or in the Downstate areas Santorum begins touring Saturday?

While Salvi is supporting Santorum, Fitzgerald, now a Virginia banker, supports Romney.

“I think he’s conservative and I think he has tremendous support in the business community – I think he appeals to a broad spectrum of conservatives,” Fitzgerald said.

Brady is staying neutral and calls the primary “too fluid” to call.

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