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Republican contenders heading to Illinois ahead of primary, Obama too

President Barack Obama returns to the White House in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011, after traveling to Marquette, Mich.. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

WASHINGTON – At this stage in the quest for the GOP presidential nomination, the Republican rivals are emphasizing winning delegates in the March 20 Illinois primary over clinching the popular vote.

The Illinois campaign bursts into play as Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are all in President Barack Obama’s home state this week – with Gingrich and Santorum investing the most time. Obama hits Chicago on Friday for a high-dollar fund-raiser at the Palmer House Hilton.

Romney has the only robust, professional, financed delegate-hunting campaign operation, led by Illinois State Treasurer Dan Rutherford and bolstered by a handful of Romney operatives who arrived in Illinois a few days ago.

“Our delegates have been running their own grass-roots campaigns,” Santorum Illinois director Jon Zahm said Sunday. Gingrich Illinois director Keith Hanson said the delegate drives have been “self-funded” with help from “friends and supporters.”

Rutherford said Sunday he is focused like a “laser beam” on identifying and turning out “Romney type of voters” in Illinois. He will hold a press conference Monday in Chicago on Romney’s Illinois campaign.

The local Romney delegate contests are assisted by about $150,000 raised by the “Committee to Elect Delegates,” created last year by Rutherford’s team, to help pay for district specific mailings and other campaign material and research to find “high propensity” Romney voters.

Romney is ahead in delegates, and Santorum and Gingrich have to have substantial delegate wins in the upcoming contests to overtake him. At stake in Illinois: 54 delegates – divided up between 18 congressional districts. Santorum starts out with a delegate deficit, fielding only 44 candidates for the 54 slots.

With Mitt Romney not scheduled into Illinois until March 19 (though he could well add stops) Romney’s Illinois team also has a Wednesday fly-around aimed at the four major Illinois television markets with Rutherford and former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and local delegate candidates doing press conferences at each stop.

Meanwhile, the Romney-allied SuperPAC, Restore Our Future, is poised to spend $1 million in Illinois television spots.

Gingrich stumps in Chicago’s northwest suburbs on Wednesday and Thursday. On Wednesday, Gingrich headlines an afternoon rally at the Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont followed by a fund-raiser at the Barrington Hills Country Club with his wife, Callista.

After that Gingrich heads to the Northwest Suburban Republican 2012 Lincoln Day Dinner in Palatine, an event with Republicans from Schaumburg, Barrington, Elk Grove, Hanover, Palatine, and Wheeling.

On Thursday, Gingrich has events in Schaumburg, Barrington, Elgin and Lake-of-the-Woods.

Santorum will be in Illinois on Friday, Saturday and Monday. On Friday, he has a rally in Niles, an event in the Elgin area and the next day he hits the Collinsville, Alton, Mount Vernon, Effingham areas.

Paul, who is popular with college students, hits the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana on Wednesday, targeting a congressional district where Santorum failed to run any delegates.