Mitt Romney can feel Rick Santorum breathing down his neck in Illinois. The only significant poll was done by the Chicago Tribune and it showed Romney beating Santorum by only 3 points.
Hence, Romney's foray into Illinois comes on Friday, rather than his original schedule that called for a blitz of the state on Monday.
With Illinois, Romney again faces a critical battle in a state that once seemed assuredly his. A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll showed Romney with a slight edge over Santorum but within the survey's margin of error. Like Michigan and Ohio before, the moderate suburban dynamic of Illinois -- where most of the state's Republican voters live -- could benefit Romney and propel him toward the nomination.
But today's Illinois GOP is not what it used to be. A strain of conservatism that for decades had yielded to a Republican organization built by moderates has taken strong root. And despite Illinois playing a leading role in a Republican nomination contest for the first time in decades, there are questions whether turnout Tuesday will be significant.
On Wednesday, only 70 people greeted Gingrich, the first of the four remaining candidates to try to plant a flag in Illinois, at a welcoming event at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont.
After a pair of second-place finishes the day before in Gingrich's home region in the South raised questions about his campaign's continued viability, he declared: "I am staying in this race." The candidate vowed to continue on until the Republican National Convention in Florida in August. "I look forward to getting to Tampa with your help," said Gingrich, who later spoke to about 450 at a dinner in Palatine.
Romney campaigned in Missouri on Wednesday leading up to that state's Saturday division of county caucus delegates, breaking away long enough to make a telephone conference call to Illinois Republicans where he declared Santorum an "economic lightweight." He also likened Santorum and Gingrich to home-state Democratic President Barack Obama as examples of the danger of electing "a president who'd never run anything."
Once again, the delegate selection process favors the candidate with a strong organization - something Santorum lacks:
Voters cast a ballot to express their choice for a nominee, but the votes that matter require an extra step - casting ballots for delegate candidates aligned with their presidential preference.
That puts a premium on the candidates' selection of delegate teams and on promoting them as much as themselves. But the nitty-gritty of amassing delegates - the real goal of the primary and caucus season - lacks the rhetorical flourishes that voters want to see from their candidates.
Romney, Gingrich and Paul have a built-in advantage in Illinois when it comes to delegates. They each filed full delegate slates in the state's 18 congressional districts. Santorum backers were able to file slates in only 14 districts, representing 44 of the 54 delegates up for election.
Theoretically, Santorum could win the state but lose the delegate battle. That would suit Romney fine because as long as he is getting more delegates than Santorum, he will ultimately win.