By JIM KUHNHENN and STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
CHICAGO (AP) — His confidence surging, Mitt Romney pointedly ignored his Republican rivals on the eve of Tuesday's high-stakes primary election in Illinois and turned his fire instead on the Democrat he hopes to oust in the fall.
Romney pushed into President Barack Obama's home territory, assailing Obama's economic credentials on the Chicago campus where the president taught for more than a decade. At the same time, GOP contender Rick Santorum struggled to explain why the nation's unemployment rate is not his top concern and why the economy isn't the issue that defines the race even as he tried to rally anti-Romney conservatives.
The contrasts offered a look inside two campaigns seemingly moving in different directions, just one day before Illinois voters decided what could be the most significant Republican contest through the end of the month.
"Freedom is on the ballot this year," Romney told students and supporters at the University of Chicago, contending that the nation's recovery from recession was being limited by an "assault on our economic freedom" by Obama. "I am offering a real choice and a very different beginning," he said.
Romney was trying to show he was more than ready to rise above the grinding GOP primary battle and move toward a general election matchup against Obama. The front-runner, he has secured more delegates than his opponents combined, and his nomination seems more assured each week as Santorum's shoestring campaign struggles under the weight of continued disorganization.
But a victory in Illinois' Tuesday primary is by no means assured.
Romney has spent big on advertising and will have devoted more than three straight days to the state — an eternity by some standards in this constantly shifting campaign — by the time votes are counted Tuesday night.
After embarrassing Santorum with a one-sided victory in Puerto Rico Sunday, the Romney campaign sees in Illinois a potential breaking point for stubborn rivals who have defiantly vowed to stay in the race until the GOP's national convention in August. Should Santorum and Newt Gingrich stay politically alive until then and follow through on their threat, it could turn the convention into an intra-party fight for the first time since 1976.
Illinois is expected to be far closer than Puerto Rico's blowout, although recent polls suggest Romney may be pulling away. Even if he should lose the popular vote, Romney is poised to win the delegate battle. Santorum cannot win at least 10 of the state's 54 delegates available Tuesday because his campaign didn't file the necessary paperwork
Still, Santorum campaigned hard across the state Sunday and Monday in light of the stakes in Illinois, one of the last premier battlegrounds before the Republican race enters an extended lull after Saturday's contest in Louisiana.
"If we're able to come out of Illinois with a huge or surprise win, I guarantee you, I guarantee you that we will win this nomination," Santorum said.
He rallied conservatives on Monday in Dixon, Ill., the hometown of President Ronald Reagan, saying that Obama's health care overhaul, not the economy, is the election's "most salient issue."
"The campaign doesn't hinge in unemployment rates," he said later. "We conservatives don't believe government creates jobs."
The comments sparked a rash of criticism that Romney picked up on at his final campaign stop of the day at Bradley University in central Illinois.
"One of the people who is running also for the Republican nomination today said that he doesn't care about the unemployment rate," Romney told college students in Peoria, Ill. "It does bother me. I want to get people back to work. I am concerned about those how are out of work."
In remarks in Rockford, Ill., Santorum said an oppressive government rather than the economy is the real issue of the presidential campaign.
"At every single speech that I give I talk about Obamacare," he said. "Every single speech I say that the issue in this race is not the economy. The reason the economy is an issue in this race is because we have a government that is oppressing its people and taking away their freedom and the economy is suffering as a result of it."