CHICAGO - Mitt Romney and his allies came into Illinois with a mission to put this primary contest away, once and for all. And, it looks like they just might have finally done it.
Coming off their big delegate haul in Puerto Rico, Romney leaves Illinois not only with another "W" in the win column, but with another large chunk of delegates. According to ABC News' estimate, Romney netted 41 delegates in Illinois compared to 10 for Rick Santorum, and there are a few more delegates yet to be allocated.
In his speech in suburban Chicago last night, Romney made it clear that he is more than ready to turn the page, and turn his focus onto the general election.
"Tonight is primary but November is a general election," he said. "And we're going to face a defining decision as a people. The choice will not be about party or even personality. This election will be about principle."
"Our economic freedom will be on the ballot," said Romney. "I'm offering a real choice and a new beginning. I'm running for president because I have the experience and the vision to get us out of this mess."
This was also a much more optimistic Romney than we've seen lately. He talked about protecting the hopes of Americans with dreams and a "future that is brighter in these troubled times."
His new tone is in sharp contrast to the boatload of negative ads he and his allies ran here in Illinois. It's also a sign that the campaign understands the importance of giving voters something to vote for instead of just telling them who they should vote against.
His strategist Eric Fehrnstrom was a little less subtle. He told Piers Morgan that "there is no deus ex machina that's coming down from the heavens that's going to change the math of the race" and that it was time for all the candidates not named Romney to "step aside."
"Both Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul - they're decent people," Fehrnstrom said. "They have run honorable campaigns. At some point the reality is going to set in that Mitt is the all but certain nominee."
Even so, Gingrich and Santorum aren't really taking the hint.
Santorum in Gettysburg told reporters, "We had really no expectations of winning Illinois, but we're going to come away with a lot of delegates, which is going to keep us in the hunt."
After coming in fourth place, Gingrich sent out this statement last night: "This campaign will spend between now and when the delegates vote in Tampa relentlessly taking the fight to President Obama to make this case."
But, working against Santorum and Gingrich: time, money and the calendar.
Santorum should win Louisiana, but after that, the pickings are pretty slim. Santorum's not on the ballot in DC, and won't find much love in Maryland. That leaves Wisconsin where the pro-Romney's super PAC, Restore Our Future, is already on the air to the tune of more than $1.3 million.
After that, it's three weeks before Pennsylvania votes. Even if he wins there, he's an underdog in the other Acela corridor states like Delaware, Connecticut and New York.
And our latest delegate math tells us that Romney is building a more comfortable lead:
From Chicago, ABC's Jake Tapper weighed in on the former Massachusetts governor's decisive win in Illinois last night on "Good Morning America." WATCH: http://abcn.ws/GEhMTe
INSIDE THE EXIT POLLS.
with ABC News Pollster Gary Langer
HOW ROMNEY WON: An improved sense that he understands voters' problems boosted Mitt Romney to victory in the Illinois primary, as did a less religiously focused, less strongly conservative electorate than he's faced in other contests, especially to the south. But a shortfall among less well-heeled Republicans marks his continued challenges. Indeed exit poll results indicated that Romney owed his victory in Illinois to two groups: voters with more than $100,000 in household incomes and those with college degrees. Among those less educated, or less well-off, he only split the vote with Rick Santorum. Other factors helped Romney. Six in 10 Illinois voters said he has the best chance of beating Barack Obama, better than his average in exit polls this year. And Romney narrowly led Santorum as the candidate who "best understands the problems of average Americans." It was only the second state, of seven where the question's been asked, in which Romney's prevailed on empathy. The other was Florida. http://abcn.ws/GC2tIu
THE LONG ROAD AHEAD: The GOP electorate remains relatively unenthusiastic: Just fewer than half of Illinois voters said they strongly favored their candidate, roughly the average this year but below its highs in Alabama, Oklahoma and Iowa. Most of the rest liked their guy, but with reservations. That said - love him, or just like him - two-thirds of Illinois GOP voters also said they were committed to their candidate winning, even if that means a long, drawn-out contest. Three in 10 said they'd like to see the race end as soon as possible, even if it means their candidate might not prevail. http://abcn.ws/GC2tIu
TIME TO 'STEP ASIDE'? As we noted above, Romney's campaign is more openly suggesting that Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul take a page from Romney's 2008 playbook and drop out of the race. So, was Romney strategist Eric Fehrnstrom's comparison of the 2008 and 2012 races accurate? ABC's Chris Good crunched the numbers:
When Romney exited the race in 2008, his delegate math looked a lot like Santorum's does today. Santorum has collected 22 percent of the delegates needed to win the nomination, while Romney had collected 24 percent in 2008. Upon Romney's 2008 exit, fewer than half (44 percent) of all delegates remained to be allocated, either in upcoming states or as RNC superdelegates. After the 2012 Illinois primary, just over half (53 percent) will be elected by remaining states or sent to Tampa as superdelegates. McCain, however, was mathematically closer to the Republican nomination than Romney is today. Romney dropped out on Feb. 7, 2008, two days after Super Tuesday in that year's front-loaded primary schedule. At the time, John McCain had won over 630 delegates, nearly 60 percent of the 1,191 delegates needed to win the nomination. With delegates still being tallied in Illinois, Romney has won 560 - just fewer than half (49 percent) of the 1144 needed to win in 2012. In other words, Romney is close to where McCain was in 2008 - but he's not quite there. http://abcn.ws/GEjeQ5
SANTORUM TELLS SUPPORTERS TO 'SADDLE UP.' ABC's Arlette Saenz reports from Gettysburg, Pa.: In a 15-minute speech to a ballroom filled with more than 700 people, Santorum looked ahead to Louisiana, where he heads Wednesday and Friday, as well as Pennsylvania, his home state, where he asked supporters to "saddle up like Reagan did in the cowboy movies" and help him in the next "five weeks for a big win and a big delegate sweep." Santorum stressed that he is the lone candidate who can provide the "contrast" to Barack Obama in the race while tying Romney to the president for adopting similar healthcare plans. "There is one candidate in this race who can make that contrast with the current occupant of the White House. There is someone in this race who has all of that, someone who has the track record of being for you, being for solutions that empower people, being for limited government. Someone who can fight the biggest issues of the day, whether 'Romneycare' or 'Obamacare,' they're interchangeable." Speaking across the street from where Abraham Lincoln finished the Gettysburg Address, Santorum shared with the crowd that he developed his appreciation for freedom while growing up in Pennsylvania. "I learned everything, everything about freedom and opportunity and hard work from growing up with folks who worked in the mills and the mines in Western Pennsylvania," Santorum said. http://abcn.ws/GCNnih
NOTED: SANTORUM TEAM COURTS GINGRICH SUPPORTERS. On primary night, Santorum strategist John Brabender suggested that it was time for Newt Gingrich backers to switch to the Santorum camp: "We need not only Gingrich supporters. We would love to have Newt Gingrich be an important voice for our campaign, quite frankly. We would like to have people that are working for Gingrich to be working for us. We would like some of his fundraising people working for us. The question that they all have to ask themselves, I believe, is: is the goal truly to have a conservative to be our nominee? If that's the case, then I think you can only come to one conclusion: it's time to unify."
RON PAUL SAYS HE PRESCRIBED BIRTH CONTROL. Ron Paul, during an appearance on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" Tuesday night admitted that he prescribed birth control pills during his time as a practicing OB-GYN in Texas, ABC's Jason Volack reports. "I was also putting myself out of business, all this birth control," said Paul adding, "They had less babies." The Texas congressman, who is credited with delivering 4,000 babies during his four decade career, also said he wouldn't ban the morning after bill, equating it to "surgical instruments" which although might be used for certain things, shouldn't be banned. Paul made the comments after Leno asked the congressman if he ever prescribed birth control to patients -a contentious issue this campaign cycle and a practice opposed by his chief GOP rivals. http://abcn.ws/GH8aRv
WHITE HOUSE WATCH: President Obama kicks off his two-day, four-state trip to promote his energy agenda today with stops in Nevada and New Mexico, ABC's Mary Bruce notes. At 4:10 pm, the president tours the Cooper Mountain Solar 1 Facility in Boulder City, Nev. The president departs Las Vegas at 5:50 pm, arriving in New Mexico at 7:20 pm. At 8:15 pm the president delivers remarks at an oil and gas production field located on federal lands outside of Maljamar, N.M. The president departs Roswell at 9:35 pm, arriving in Oklahoma City, Okla., at 10:50 pm, where he will spend the night.
@NKingofDC : Needing nearly twice as many delegates to clinch, Obama at this point was just 130 up on Clinton. Romney is 300 up on Santorum.
PRIMARY STATE SPEED READ
by ABC's Chris Good
HOW ROMNEY'S WIN IS PLAYING:
The New York Times: Romney Is Victory By Wide Margin in Illinois…Gains Support on Right…Puts Focus on Obama in Win-Santorum Is a Distant 2nd http://nyti.ms/GBVa4S
The Wall Street Journal: Romney Rolls to Illinois Win…Victory in Another Midwest State Builds GOP Delegate Lead http://on.wsj.com/GDeuz8 The Washington Post: Illinois Gives Romney Big Win Over Santorum…Chicago Suburbs Tilt Primary…Delegate lead widens, but race is far from over http://wapo.st/GFMgmh
- In Louisiana, Gingrich Runs on Oil & Gas. Knowing his audience, Newt Gingrich is making his gas-prices and domestic-energy pitch even harder in Louisiana, home to offshore oil drilling. "I don't want more Saudi oil. I want more American oil. And in Louisiana, I want more natural gas," Gingrich said on Tuesday in Shreveport. "Right now you have people who are technologically ignorant costing you money because they're technologically stupid." http://bit.ly/GCGuPs -Maryland to Play Unusually Large Role in 2012 Race. As a small state that didn't schedule its primary at the font of the GOP calendar, Maryland didn't figure to weigh heavily on the Republican presidential race. But like other states, in this drawn-out primary season Maryland now finds itself voting at a critical time on April 3, perhaps able to give Mitt Romney a big momentum swing, the Baltimore Sun points out. http://bsun.md/GCpH12 -Journal Sentinel Editorial: Republicans Play Politics With Gas Prices. In recent weeks, Newt Gingrich has centered his campaign on promises of $2.50/gallon gas. But ahead of Wisconsin's April 3 primary, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel writes in an editorial that "Gingrich's dream is a fantasy - a great sound bite, perhaps, but one that isn't coming true anytime soon." Other Republicans including Mitt Romney, who has pledged to fire Obama's top energy officials, are playing a "worn-out card" in blaming a U.S. president for the price of gas, the paper writes. http://bit.ly/GA52Ho
-Mitt Romney heads to Maryland ahead of their April 3 rd Primary. Romney will hold a town hall at an American Legion Post in Arbutus, Maryland.
-Rick Santorum spends the day campaigning in Louisiana delivering speeches in Harvey, Mandeville, and Alexandria. Louisiana holds their primary on Saturday.
-Newt Gingrich is also on the trail in Louisiana speaking at a town hall at Louisiana College in the morning. Then, Gingrich will hold a Meet & Greet in Lake Charles and a rally at the Hilton Lafayette. Callista Gingrich will hold two events in Lake Charles and Lafayette, Louisiana.
-ABC's Josh Haskell (@HaskellBuzz)
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