Barack Obama's strategists consider Illinois his safety zone on Super Tuesday—if he can't make it there, he can't make it anywhere.
It's not only his home state, where he has deep roots, but a place where his popularity appears undeniable. He won 70 percent of the vote in his 2004 Senate campaign, and he has based his national headquarters in downtown Chicago.
Yet Obama isn't matching that 2004 level of support in recent presidential polls, where he leads Hillary Clinton by about 30 points, 51 to 22. Clinton also has an Illinois background, having been born and raised in the Chicago area. And she is competing seriously in the state, sending various surrogates including her husband, Bill, to stump there in recent days. Both the Clinton and Obama campaigns have raised millions of dollars in Illinois.
It's clear why Hillary Clinton is making the effort. If she captures 15 percent of the statewide vote and gets at least 15 percent in a congressional district, she will be entitled to a proportional share of delegates. And if the national race stays close, even small batches of delegates could make a difference. That's the dynamic in state after state going into Tuesday, when 24 states will hold nominating contests.
On the Republican side, Arizona Sen. John McCain appears to be the favorite. He led former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney 34 percent to 26 percent in the latest Rasmussen Reports poll released yesterday. The Rasmussen survey was taken just before McCain won the Florida primary this week and before former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s withdrawal from the race. McCain seems to be breaking away, but polls have not yet tested that proposition. McCain was expected to visit the state Friday.
Both the Democratic and Republican races in Illinois have been low key as the campaigns and the media have focused their attention elsewhere. Several months ago, Illinois officials moved their primaries from mid-March to February 5, hoping to get into the Super Tuesday spotlight. It hasn't worked out quite that way.
One local issue has bubbled up—a negative one. During a debate in South Carolina recently, Clinton criticized Obama for legal work he did for Tony Rezko, a Chicago developer who contributed to many politicians in Illinois, including Obama. Rezko—whom Clinton called a "slum landlord"—is charged with public corruption and fraud, and Obama earlier had given about $84,000 of Rezko contributions to charity. But the controversy has been a sideshow, having little or no impact on the overall campaign.