By THOMAS BEAUMONT
CHICAGO - After two Deep South losses, Mitt Romney is intensifying his campaign efforts in the economically challenged Midwest - a friendly region for him - in hopes of regaining his front-runner's momentum when Illinois holds its Republican presidential primary Tuesday.
But the race for Illinois and its cache of 54 delegates is tighter than might have been expected, thanks to Rick Santorum's recent rise in opinion polls here and elsewhere.
Romney is clearly mindful of the threat. He and his allies are pouring money into the state, near Michigan where he grew up and his father was governor. Romney won the Michigan primary on Feb. 28.
Logistically, he's also looking to take advantage of Santorum's failure to get the signatures needed to ensure he's on the ballot statewide in Illinois.
And Romney's on the attack.
"We are not going to be successful in replacing an economic lightweight if we nominate an economic lightweight," the former Massachusetts governor said Friday during an early morning stop in suburban Rosemont near Chicago. The criticism, focusing on the economy, which is the voters' No. 1 concern, was a one-two punch against both President Barack Obama and Republican Santorum. "I am an economic heavy weight, and I know how to fix this economy," Romney declared.
Democrat Obama was fundraising and campaigning in Illinois, too, on Friday and taking his own shots at the Republicans - for negative campaigning.
Noting he was in "the land of Lincoln," Obama said the Republicans weren't exactly appealing to - in the Civil War president's words - "the better angels of our nature." He told his audience at a fundraiser in Chicago, his adopted hometown, "I'm thinking maybe some Lincoln will rub off on them while they're here."
In a wry reference to the heated Republican race, he said, "We've got some guests in Illinois this week. Apparently they have not wrapped up on the other side."
Romney, after Illinois, headed to campaign in Puerto Rico, where he's hoping to win Sunday's primary.
Santorum, himself just back from Puerto Rico, faces the same obstacles in Illinois that he has in previous contests - a lack of money and campaign organization. But his message that he's the true conservative in the race could resonate strongly in the rural areas of the state. He was spending Friday and Saturday campaigning in some of Illinois' small towns, including Effingham.
Beyond this state, the former Pennsylvania senator is focused on Louisiana, where he hopes to continue winning in the conservative South on March 24.
In Missouri, en route to Illinois from his campaign swing in Puerto Rico, Santorum sounded confident. He said that, despite Romney's heavy advertising presence and organizational advantage, he could post his first primary victory in an upper Midwestern industrial state. He argued he offered a conservative vision for the country.
"We're being outspent 10-to-1 on television in Illinois, and I still think we have a chance to win Illinois," Santorum told a rally in Osage Beach, Mo. "Because without a vision the people will perish."
Illinois is the highest profile contest of the coming week, and it kicks off a two-week series of five contests before an April lull in the GOP nomination fight that could well stretch into summer. As Obama focuses on the general election, Romney is struggling to clinch the GOP nomination, even though he's well ahead in the fight for delegates to the August GOP national convention. He needs to win 1,144, and is on pace to secure that number by June.
Despite his delegate lead, Romney has recently won only peripheral contests in U.S. territories and he hasn't won a primary since winning six of 10 states on Super Tuesday some 10 days ago. So he's turning to Illinois to right his course in a state that's being seriously contested only by Santorum and him. The resumption of voting in the upper Midwestern states, with Wisconsin following close behind Illinois on April 3, could be pivotal for the GOP front-runner. Maryland and the District of Columbia also hold primaries on April 3, as the voting enters its fourth month.
Illinois was in the spotlight Friday, with Romney, Santorum and the man they hope to get the chance to challenge all appearing in the state.
In the GOP race here, it's all but down to two men, with recent polls in Illinois showing Romney leading Santorum by a small margin.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, badly damaged after losses in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday, campaigned in the Chicago area this week. But the former Georgia congressman was in Louisiana on Friday. Longshot Texas Rep. Ron Paul has campaigned little in Illinois, though he headlined a rally at the University of Illinois on Wednesday. Neither contender was advertising in the state.
In contrast, Romney and his allies are dominating Illinois' expensive TV airwaves. His campaign was airing about $1 million in TV ads this week, and a political action committee that supports him was spending $2.4 million on an ad aimed at undermining Santorum's appeal as a conservative. The ad notes Santorum's past support for earmark spending, raising the debt limit and allowing felons to obtain the right to vote.
Looking ahead in the upper Midwest, the pro-Romney group, Restore Our Future, also has begun airing ads criticizing Santorum in Wisconsin.
In Illinois, Santorum and a group that supports him - Winning Our Future - were spending only about one-fifth of the pro-Romney advertising. The pro-Santorum group was on the air in Louisiana, looking to counter an onslaught of negative ads by the pro-Romney group.
Romney's message is focused squarely on the economy in Illinois, where unemployment was 9.3 percent in February, the eighth-highest in the country.
"Romney will do well in the Chicago suburbs. Santorum will do well deep downstate," said Dan Curry, a Republican strategist and veteran of several statewide campaigns. "Illinois has its own unique nature that really matches the country."
While Chicago dominates Illinois politics, the Republican primary electorate is divided evenly between the GOP-heavy suburbs and the rural and southern reaches outside the metro area.
Santorum, who won primaries in Alabama and Mississippi on Tuesday, is banking on his appeal to rural conservatives, including the evangelical base in central and southern Illinois. Santorum, who also won the Tennessee primary on March 6, will include on his statewide tour Saturday a stop in Herrin, Ill., a town 100-miles closer to Memphis than it is to Chicago.
The 54 delegates at stake Tuesday are directly elected by voters, while 15 more will be named at the state party convention in June.
Romney has been the most aggressive cultivating the state, although the last time he set foot in the state was November when he held a fundraiser.
He has lined up Republican establishment figures. Sen. Mark Kirk, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, Rep. Aaron Schock and state GOP chairman Pat Brady have endorsed Romney. The familiar names, who are on the ballot as Romney delegates, give Romney an edge in an election where voters actually select delegates.
Romney, who has flexed his campaign organization to narrow victories in Michigan and Ohio, has fielded a full slate of delegates in all 18 of Illinois' congressional districts.
Santorum has struggled to organize and was unable to field delegates in four Illinois districts, where a total of 10 delegates are at stake Tuesday.
Associated Press writers Brian Bakst and Robert Ray contributed to this story.