Santorum’s Momentum Meets Romney’s Money in Illinois

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Charlie Riedel / AP

Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum talks during a rally March 9, 2012, in Topeka, Kansas.

John Zahm has his hands full. He is the only paid campaign staffer for Rick Santorum in the entire state of Illinois, which hosts the next crucial clash in the Republican nominating contest on Tuesday. A local Tea Party leader and homeschooling advocate who worked for Mike Huckabee in 2008, Zahm was hired two days before Christmas. Part of his brief was to carry out a key assignment: Get Santorum on the ballot in Illinois. It almost didn’t happen.

Illinois is an unlikely battleground for Republicans. It hasn’t hosted a pivotal GOP primary since the 1980s. It’s a blue state that’s home to the incumbent Democratic President. But south of I-80, far from the Chicago sprawl, the Land of Lincoln is mostly cornfields and small towns, with a deeply conservative electorate that mirrors parts of neighboring Iowa or rural Ohio. Despite being outgunned and out-organized in the state, Zahm and some 400 volunteers have put Santorum in position to potentially ride a wave of grassroots passion to an upset victory.

(MORE: The Santorum Conundrum by Mark Halperin)

A recent Chicago Tribune poll showed Santorum nipping at Romney’s heels, but when Zahm first joined the team, the former Pennsylvania Senator was still running a meager one-state campaign in Iowa. Zahm struggled mightily to gather the 600 signatures required to get Santorum on the ballot in each of Illinois’ 18 congressional districts. In three districts, he didn’t even try to make the ballot; in a fourth, a volunteer mishandled the filing. Pundits have snickered at these failures, which render the candidate ineligible for 10 of the 54 delegates awarded on Tuesday. But it could have been much worse. Santorum actually fell short of the signature threshold in 14 of 18 districts, which led the Romney campaign to file a challenge with Illinois’ State Board of Elections.

Santorum’s organizational struggles have hampered him throughout his campaign. He ran into similar delegate trouble in Ohio and failed to qualify for the ballot entirely in Virginia. But shortly after the challenge was filed, Romney’s team withdrew it in 10 of 14 districts, a decision that caused consternation among Romney allies after Santorum’s Southern sweep on March 13 heightened the stakes in Illinois. What happened? Zahm says Romney’s camp withdrew the challenge after he submitted one of his own, charging that Romney had improperly notarized his candidacy in the state. “I had Romney on the technicality of the notary,” says Zahm. Jim Tenuto, an official with the Illinois Board of Elections, says that the two campaigns probably negotiated a mutual withdrawal. “There must have been an agreement worked out, because Santorum is allowed to appear on the ballot even though he’s below the minimum number of signatures,” he says.

(MORE: How Romney Can Win)

With 69 delegates at stake in Illinois — 54 apportioned by district, plus 15 chosen at the state convention in June — Santorum’s forfeiture of 10 delegates isn’t disastrous. But he’ll have to fight hard to win a majority. Romney is pouring resources into Illinois to stanch the bleeding from his recent bad night down South. Reuters suggests the campaign and its allied super PAC have spent nearly $5 million in Illinois already. The campaign has rolled out a laundry list of supporters as a testament to its deep institutional backing.

“Romney’s by far the best organized,” says Pat Brady, the Illinois GOP chairman. Brady, who supports Romney, says the former Massachusetts governor will rack up his margin in the vote-rich suburbs of Cook County — some 70% of Republicans are based in the Chicago area — and in a narrow band of turf that runs west to Wheaton and north to the Wisconsin border, home to a more moderate Republican electorate for whom fiscal issues trump social ones. The model for a Romney win, Brady says, is that of Senator Mark Kirk, who rode an economic message to a victory in 2010. “The state is just a train wreck fiscally,” Brady says. “People are looking for solutions.”

(MORE: Santorum’s Southern Sweep Sets Up Long Showdown with Romney)

But if Romney is well-positioned in the more moderate urban areas, Santorum stands to win the vast rural swaths of the state, which are more conservative albeit more sparsely populated. “I believe we’re going to win everywhere outside the city of Chicago,” says Zahm. Throughout the GOP primary season, Santorum has won the majority of rural counties while Romney has gobbled up votes in population centers. It was Romney’s support in urban areas that allowed him to narrowly outpace Santorum’s countryside domination in Ohio, swinging the state to Romney.

But in Illinois, momentum is on Santorum’s side. His fundraising has improved in the wake of Tuesday’s victories in Alabama and Mississippi. On Thursday, the Santorum-allied Red, White and Blue Fund dropped $310,000 on a new TV ad that hits Romney on fiscal issues and health care. His team is hopeful that a grassroots groundswell will be enough to put him over the top in the next big primary. And Zahm is confident. “The so-called liberal Republican is a dinosaur here nowadays,” he says.

(PHOTOS: On the Trail with Santorum: Photographs by Justin Maxon)