CHICAGO—Polls across Illinois closed at 7 p.m. Tuesday and the ballot counting has begun, with anything less than a convincing victory for Mitt Romney in both the popular vote and battle for delegates being viewed as a setback for his front running GOP presidential campaign.
Romney is waiting out the returns in Schaumburg, but his main rival Rick Santorum left the state Monday and was watching the numbers from an election-night party in Gettysburg, Pa., in the state he once served as a U.S. Senator.
CNN exit polls were encouraging for Romney, who appeared to be carrying the Chicago suburbs by a large margin over Santorum.
As expected, the exit polls showed Santorum doing better than Romney Downstate, but not by much.
It's the first time since 1988 that a Republican presidential primary has been relevant in Illinois.
At stake are not only Illinois' 54 elected national convention delegates, but for Romney the chance to gain much-needed momentum with a big-state victory. For a vastly outspent and out-organized Rick Santorum, a win in Illinois would upend Romney's slow drive to the nomination and fuel questions about his electability and ability to unify core GOP conservatives.
Both candidates provided some final-day fireworks Monday that reflected Romney's attempt to woo fiscal conservatives and Santorum's appeal to social conservatives.
During stops in northwestern Illinois, Santorum declared he "didn't care about the unemployment rate" and argued that "the issue in the race is not the economy." The former Pennsylvania senator sought to stake out a broader theme that his candidacy is about picking a Republican defender of small government and individual economic and social freedoms.
Romney, who has focused on the nation's economy and fiscal conservatism, used his final public stop of the day to criticize Santorum.
"I do care about the unemployment rate. It does bother me. I want to get people back to work," Romney said to cheers from a town hall audience at Bradley University in Peoria.
In Rockford, Santorum sought to appeal to blue-collar Republicans by engaging in a form of class warfare by mocking Romney's financial background.
"I heard Gov. Romney here call me an economic lightweight because I wasn't a Wall Street financier like he was," Santorum said. "Do you really believe this country wants to elect a Wall Street financier as president of the United States? Do you think that's the kind of experience we need, someone who's going to look after, as he did, his friends on Wall Street and bail them out at the expense of Main Street America?"
The long day of campaigning definitely had a presidential atmosphere. Romney delivered an economic speech at the University of Chicago, where Obama previously taught law students. Santorum ventured to Dixon, the boyhood home of Ronald Reagan, and noted that Reagan ran an "insurgent" campaign in 1976 against a candidate backed by the GOP establishment, President Gerald Ford.
Still, Santorum was forced to explain his remarks about the unemployment rate and the economy. "My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. There's something more foundational," he said. In East Peoria, Santorum acknowledged there were a few things he wished he could have taken back. "Occasionally, you say some things you wish you had a, you know, a do-over."
Santorum added that his candidacy transcends economic issues to include fundamental freedoms, while Romney is focused on campaigning as a government economic manager — something he said was anathema to true conservatives.
"The reason the economy is an issue in this race is because we have a government that's oppressing its people and taking away their freedom, and the economy is suffering as a result," Santorum said.
In his appearance at the U. of C., Romney begrudgingly acknowledged that the nation is making an economic recovery. But he contended that Obama was hampering a major economic rebound through big-government tax-and-spend policies.
It was a recalibration of Romney's effort to try to leverage his private-sector experience into someone who would rescue the economy, much as his message last weekend was aimed at turning voter anger over higher gasoline prices into votes.
"Freedom is becoming the victim of unbounded government appetite — and so is economic growth, job growth and wage growth. As government takes more and more, there is less and less of an incentive to take risk, to invest, to innovate and to hire," Romney told students of the university's Booth School of Business.
"The proof is in this weak recovery," he said. "This administration thinks our economy is struggling because the stimulus was too small. The truth is, this economy is struggling because our government is too big."
Amid a flurry of television ads, automated telephone calls and mailers, other candidates on Tuesday's ballot struggled for attention.
After the presidential contest, the biggest races are for Congress. But voters in many towns will be greeted by unfamiliar names on the ballot after Democrats used their power to vastly shift congressional boundaries in an effort to wrest back a majority in a state delegation that went Republican in the 2010 midterm elections.
Though Democrats sought to force incumbent Republicans to face off against each other, Democrats have the most primary contests Tuesday.
In the new South Side and south suburban 2nd District, Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.faces a challenge from former one-term Rep. Debbie Halvorson, of Crete. The new northwest suburban 8th District features a battle between Tammy Duckworth and Raja Krishnamoorthi, each of Hoffman Estates, in a contest to challenge tea party-backed freshman Republican Rep. Joe Walsh, of McHenry.
The new north suburban 10th District features a four-man Democratic contest growing especially bitter between Ilya Sheyman, of Waukegan, and Brad Schneider, of Deerfield. The winner faces freshman Republican Rep. Robert Dold, of Kenilworth. In the exurban 16th District, the state's lone contest between incumbent Republicans has been a hotly contested battle between veteran Rep. Donald Manzullo, of Leaf River, and first-term Rep. Adam Kinzinger, of Manteno.
Also on the ballot are dozens of judicial and county races as well as contests for the state Legislature, which also has newly drawn post-census boundaries. All 118 House seats and all 59 Senate seats are up for an election — an occurrence that happens only once every decade.
Voters throughout the suburbs will decide dozens of tax and advisory questions.
Tribune reporters Ray Long and Alissa Groeninger reported from Springfield, Peoria and East Peoria; John Byrne from Rockford, Dixon and Moline; and Rick Pearson and Monique Garcia from Chicago.