Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney swept to victory in the Republican primary in Illinois Tuesday, winning by a wide margin, US television networks projected.
Fox News and CNN both showed Romney winning the race with 56 percent of the vote, to 27 percent for former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, his nearest rival in the race for their party’s nomination to run against President Barack Obama in November.
The win in Illinois provides Romney with momentum ahead of Louisiana’s primary Saturday and contests in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington, DC on April 3.
Romney also has a commanding lead in the all-important delegate count as he seeks to be the Republican contender to take on Democrat Obama in the November 6 vote.
“I voted for Romney because I think he’s the best candidate to beat Obama,” George Paterson, 77, told AFP after casting his ballot in the affluent Chicago suburb Wilmette.
“I wish he was a little more specific (on policy) but anything’s better than what we have now.”
Janet Langdon, 36, said she and her husband “love Mitt” and what he did for Massachusetts, where they used to live.
“The country needs to be run more like a business and he can do that,” she said.
Investment analyst William Florida usually votes Democrat, but also cast a ballot for Romney in the state’s open primary Tuesday and said he would consider voting for the former Massachusetts governor in November.
“I voted for Romney because I think he’s more tolerant than the rest of the Republicans,” Florida, 46, said.
“I want to see two good candidates this fall rather than one bad one.”
While Romney may have a better chance of winning over moderates and independents crucial to winning a general election, he has been weakened by his failure to win over the Republican party’s conservative base in the grueling state-by-state primary race.
Written off in the early days, Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, has steadily notched up wins — 10 out of the past 31 contests — largely with the help of evangelicals and the party’s most conservative members.
Romney’s campaign has spent millions flooding the Illinois airwaves with negative ads calling Santorum an “economic lightweight” and “Washington insider” who has voted against his principles in the past.
Santorum, meanwhile, wrapped himself in the cloak of late president Ronald Reagan — a conservative icon — and insisted Republicans could only beat Obama in November if they elect a “true conservative.”
“There’s one candidate in this race who can never make this race about freedom because he simply abandoned freedom when he was governor of Massachusetts,” Santorum told supporters gathered in Reagan’s boyhood home of Dixon, Illinois on Monday.
The candidates’ spouses have also joined the fray, with Santorum’s wife Karen in a rare television interview insisting on CNN that her husband was pro-women and that he would not seek to block access to birth control, despite his personal opposition to it.
Four Republican contenders are fighting to win the 1,144 delegates needed to lock up the nomination, with the winner to be crowned at the party convention in Tampa in August.
About halfway through the race, Romney has pocketed 516 delegates, while Santorum has won 236 and former house speaker Newt Gingrich has 141, according to the website Real Clear Politics.
Texas Congressman Ron Paul, a small-government champion, has about 66.
Santorum’s campaign has been urging Gingrich — who has only won two contests — to drop out of the race in order to consolidate the conservative vote.
Illinois and Louisiana between them have more than 110 delegates up for grabs, while by the end of April, another 320 or so will have been decided — many of them in states where the winner takes all.
Should Romney do well in the more liberal East Coast states, as expected, he could well be in an unstoppable position mathematically by the end of next month.
A Rasmussen national poll gave Obama a six-point lead over Santorum, but a statistical tie with Romney.
With reporting by Raw Story