Mississippi and Alabama were big wins for Rick Santorum Tuesday in the fight for the GOP presidential nomination.
But those states, while never considered strong for Mitt Romney, further revealed the vulnerabilities of his campaign, specifically, problems identifying with many elements of the Republican base.
The next big contest is Tuesday in Illinois.
It’s a state rich in delegates (69) and in something else that should be good news for Romney: more moderate Republicans. But he still needs to connect with even those voters.
NPR has been talking to people in and around central Illinois, including the city of Peoria.
To find out how Romney will “play in Peoria” we start out at Bradley University in the marketing department, where professor Ed Bond has studied the city’s role as an iconic American test market.
“You take something on the road to make sure it’d work before you’d play in the big venues, and the idea was if it can pass muster in Peoria, it’s probably going to play to other audiences, other places,” said Bond.
There are similarities between products and a presidential primary campaign. Take the example of a beer tested here in Peoria — Michelob Ultra Amber.
“What they learned is if they positioned it as a dark light beer, people loved it,” said Bond. “It doesn’t compare as well if you think of it as a light dark beer. So it was very important for them to position correctly as a light beer that embodies the character of dark beers.”
Now, instead of beer, let’s think about politics.
Many Romney supporters see him as a conservative with some moderate traits. But to his detractors, he’s a moderate trying to act conservative.
But central Illinois, Peoria and the surrounding counties, is not the Deep South — Alabama and Mississippi — where Romney lost Tuesday, finishing in third place in each state behind former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
“Romney, being a former Republican governor of a very Democratic state [Massachusetts] and his ability to work across political lines — while that might not play in the South, here in central Illinois I believe it’s a plus,” said Brad McMillan, a political scientist at Bradley University.
Those who’ve represented this solidly Republican district include the legendary Everett Dirksen. Not long after that it was Bob Michel, a fierce moderate and longtime House minority leader. Then came Ray LaHood, a Republican who now serves as President Obama’s Transportation secretary. The current congressman from the 18th congressional district of Illinois is 30-year-old Aaron Schock.
I caught up with Schock, an early Romney backer, at a GOP Lincoln Day dinner this week in nearby LaSalle County.
“No one who has hired Gov. Romney has been disappointed or sorry they did, and I think that really distinguishes himself from some of the other candidates,” said Schock. “Rick Santorum was fired when he was senator [he lost a third-term re-election in 2006]. Newt Gingrich had to step down from his own party as speaker [he resigned from the leadership post after Republican House losses in 1998],” said Schock.
But conversations with Illinois voters do reveal that people have been slow to warm up to Romney.
At The Spotted Cow diner in Peoria, Tonna Walters, 73, is holding her regular mahjong tile game with friends.
“Well, I’m sure I’ll vote for Romney, but I am not excited about it,” said Walters. “I just keep thinking, ‘I wish someone else would jump in.’ But I guess it’s too late, and I don’t know who would do it.”
Next to Walters is Pat Hagenbuch, 69, who owns a business with her husband. She’s a big fan of Rep. Schock. So she should be an easy get for Romney.
“I wish I knew him better as a person. I only see him on TV and sometimes he seems maybe like he’s a little cavalier about some things and that sort of bothers me,” Hagenbuch said of Romney.
Asked what she meant by “cavalier,” Hagenbuch replied: “I don’t know how to describe that. It’s just a feeling that I have. I’m certainly not opposed to him and I don’t know that much about Santorum. … Is that how you pronounce it?”
Santorum is not well known here. But when you come across his supporters you don’t hear ambivalence.
“I decided to support Santorum because I think he holds the values closest to what I hold,” said Pat Wagner, a semi-retired nurse, who also attended the Lincoln Day dinner in LaSalle County. “He seems to understand the social issues and I want a candidate that I can really wholeheartedly support.”
Romney does seem to have the pieces in place to do well in central Illinois and statewide. He’s well organized, as he has been everywhere. But it’s still up in the air how well he’ll actually play here.