State's relevancy March 20 depends on who's left standing

Clout Street

With the state’s primary election less than three weeks away, just how much Illinois will be in play in the Republican presidential contest could depend upon next week’s Super Tuesday contests.

Mitt Romney’s twin primary victories in Michigan and Arizona may have righted his bid for the GOP nomination, but no candidate will have mathematically sewn it up even after 10 states hold their primaries and caucuses next week.

But the Super Tuesday results could serve as an exit ramp for one or more contenders with key attention on Ohio, a battleground where Rick Santorum has been leading in polls, and Georgia, the former home of Newt Gingrich.

“It’s a battle for delegates,” said David Yepsen, a veteran of presidential politics who heads the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “Illinois is still going to be a good prize worth going for.”

The state’s presidential primary traditionally has been a non-factor nationally because it’s held so late. Four years ago, Illinois lawmakers moved the primary date to early February, the Super Tuesday of 2008, to help Barack Obama win some early delegates from his home state. Illinois also handed eventual 2008 GOP nominee John McCain an early victory over Romney, but got scant attention because it was one of more than 20 states holding contests that day.

This time, the delegates at stake in Illinois March 20 could be valuable to a candidate seeking the nomination or at least securing some influence at the Republican National Convention.

Illinois will have a presidential preference ballot, but as always, it’s only a beauty contest. What matters are the 54 presidential nominating delegates that will be directly elected by Republican voters from each of the state’s new 18 congressional districts. Romney, Ron Paul and Gingrich each filed full slates of delegates, while Santorum filed only 44 delegate contenders, unable to field candidates in four congressional districts.

Another 12 at-large Illinois delegates to the Republican National Convention in Tampa, Fla., in August will be picked at the GOP state convention in Tinley Park in June. In addition, the state party chairman and Illinois’ two Republican National Committee members are delegates. Those 15 delegates go to Tampa not bound to a specific candidate.

The total of 69 delegates at stake in Illinois is the second-largest number in the early going of the Republican primary season, which runs through June, behind Georgia’s 76 delegates and ahead of Ohio’s 66 delegates.

This year, a change in the RNC’s delegate selection rules has drawn out the GOP presidential campaign.

Unlike previous years, early states were required to award national convention nominating delegates on a proportional basis. Those states that chose winner take all contests or moved up earlier in the process in violation of RNC rules found delegates cut in half.

So even after months of campaigning and 11 caucuses and primaries, the front-running Romney has less than 200 delegates, or only about one-sixth, of those needed to win the nomination.

On Super Tuesday, there are 437 delegates at stake, but even a clean sweep would not allow any of the GOP’s final four to amass the 1,144 delegates needed to outright win the nomination.

In the two weeks between Super Tuesday and Illinois, another 261 delegates will be up for grabs in a variety of caucuses and primaries. Alabama, with 53 delegates, and Mississippi, with 40 delegates, hold primaries a week before Illinois and will test the candidates’ appeal in the South.

Illinois also may hold a special cachet for competition among the Republican contenders — claiming to win the GOP nomination in Obama’s backyard. By the general election, however, the state likely will be flyover territory, except for fundraising, for the eventual Republican nominee.

Another major factor drawing out the presidential process is the Super PAC, political action committees aligned with a candidate that can take unlimited sums of money from supporters, the result of a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Each candidate has a Super PAC, which cannot coordinate its activities with the contender, but can advocate for them. As a result, the Super PACs have far outspent the candidates themselves and have helped rejuvenate candidacies that in the past would have quickly ended.

That’s certainly the case for Gingrich, the former House speaker. Opting to avoid Arizona and Texas in favor of the Georgia contest on Super Tuesday and later southern states, Gingrich’s Winning Our Future PAC already has received more than $11 million from Sheldon Adelson and his family and is getting another cash infusion from the billionaire casino magnate.

For Super Tuesday in Ohio, candidates and their Super PACs have spent nearly $5 million so far, including nearly $3.4 million by Romney’s campaign and his Restore Our Future, according to statistics compiled by POLITICO.

Yepsen said the move to proportional delegate division among candidates and the Super PACs are the “wild cards” of this nominating season. Rather than Super Tuesday’s results necessarily reducing the four-man field, Yepsen said, “You just can’t write anybody off when people can write checks at $1 million a pop.”

Even before this week’s results, representatives of Romney’s so-called Super PAC, Restore Our Future, made inquiries about purchasing television advertising time in the expensive Chicago market, according to a source familiar with the TV ad market who was not authorized to speak publicly.

Santorum also has a Super PAC but questions have arisen over the former Pennsylvania senator’s ability to run the breadth and depth of a national campaign organization. In the Virginia primary on Super Tuesday, Santorum and Gingrich fell short of the state’s ballot rules leaving only Romney and Paul to compete.

In failing to file a full slate of delegates, Santorum missed out in Illinois on the opportunity to pick up delegates in the new 5th Congressional District, which includes strong Republican areas in Elmhurst, Oak Brook and Hinsdale, and in the Downstate 13th District, which runs through central and southwestern Illinois.

Though the 2008 Democratic nominating battle between Obama and now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also went on for months, Yepsen said there is a tangible difference.

Democrats were arguing about who they liked better and were having a hard time deciding,” said Yepsen, a former national political writer for the Des Moines Register. “A lot of Republicans, they don’t like any of them and are having a hard time deciding.”

While expressing optimism about the importance of Illinois, representatives of the campaigns in the state have little to say about their plans for Illinois. Romney, however, is scheduled to be in the state on March 19, appearing at a fundraising event in the Peoria area with GOP U.S.Rep. Aaron Schock, and is expected to be in Chicago on primary night.

Not to be outdone, Obama has scheduled a fundraising luncheon on March 16 at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago. The event, hosted by Lawyers for Obama, will cost at least $2,500 per person.

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