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State GOP presidential primary matters, for once

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SPRINGFIELD — For the first time in recent memory, Republican voters in Illinois GOP presidential primary will carry some weight in the national race.

By Anthony Brino

SPRINGFIELD — For the first time in recent memory, Republican voters in Illinois GOP presidential primary will carry some weight in the national race.

Typically, presidential nominees would be decided in party caucuses and primaries well before Illinois voters get to their primaries.

"For the first time in decades, Illinois will be a factor in the presidential primary," said Jim Nowlan, a political scientist at the Institute for Government and Public Affairs, a public policy research center at the University of Illinois.

The race for the GOP nod has been close since the Iowa caucuses in January kicked off election season, making every primary important, and many primaries nail-bitingly close.

Illinois looks to be no different.

A Chicago Tribune poll released today shows former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney out in front, with former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania running second. Romney's support is centered around Chicagoland, while Santorum's base is built around downstate, according to the poll. In the survey of 600 Republicans registered in Illinois, 35 percent said they favored Romney, while 31 percent gave a nod to Santorum. The margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia was favored by 16 percent of those polled, and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas was favored by 7 percent.

Besides having less popular support than Romney among Republican voters, Santorum handicapped himself early on in Illinois. Santorum appointed just 44 of 54 delegates in the state. The other three candidates all have a full slate of 54 delegates.

Illinois' 54 elected delegates are divided by congressional districts. Each of the state's 19 congressional district gets at least two delegates, while some districts can get up to four. The state also has 15 so-called "floaters," voting for whomever they want at the nominating convention.

If a candidate wins the popular vote in a congressional district, they get all the delegates in that district. Those delegates go on to cast votes for their candidates at the Republican National Convention in August in Tampa.

Even if Santorum wins the popular vote in Illinois, he can still only get 44 delegates because he failed to nominate delegates in four congressional districts.

"His campaign filed at the end of the day on the last day to file. Once you've missed that filing window, you've missed the filing window," said Ken Menzel, a spokesman for the Illinois State Board of Elections.

The contest in Illinois comes after months of Republican debates and primaries, with each candidate pitching their vision for America — and their criticisms of President Obama's policies — to voters across the country.

Voters in Mississippi, Alabama and Hawaii cast ballots in GOP primaries on Tuesday. Missouri Republican voters go to the polls Saturday.

The candidates have been advertising on the state's airwaves and rallying supporters to contribute to their campaigns.

Romney has raised $1.9 million in Illinois; Paul has raised $451,800; Gingrich, $247,600; and Santorum, $106,100, according to the filings with the Federal Election Commission.

"In Illinois, the polls suggest a small Romney lead over Santorum, but with plenty of undecideds," said Brian Gaines, a political scientist at the University of Illinois. "I suspect that it will be a fairly small Romney 'win' in total votes. At this point, I have a hard time imagining anyone except Romney winning the candidacy."

Dan Rutherford, the Illinois treasurer and the chairman of Romney's Illinois campaign, said he believes Romney's business prowess — he was a former private equity manager — will impress voters in a state such as Illinois, which is plagued with financial problems.

"The strongest quality he brings is private-sector experience, and that's what we need," Rutherford said.

Representatives from the Gingrich and Paul campaigns couldn't be reached for comment.

Jon Zahm, a member of the Henry County Board and director of Santorum's Illinois campaign, said even though Santorum has raised far less money than Romney, Santorum is a viable candidate.

"I think his 'Made in the USA' jobs plan, which wants to bring manufacturing back to the Midwest, has a lot of appeal in Illinois," Zahm said.

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