(Photo: REUTERS/Jeff Haynes)
Mitt Romney expanded his lead in the race to become the Republican presidential nominee Tuesday by winning the Illinois primary. The outcome decreases the likelihood that Romney's main rival, Rick Santorum, can win the nomination.
"What a night. Thank you, Illinois. What a night," Romney said as he began his victory speech.
Romney also congratulated his rivals, but spent most of the speech talking about the person he hopes will be his main rival in November – Barack Obama.
"After years of too many apologies and not enough jobs, historic drops in income and historic highs in gas prices, a president who doesn't hesitate to use all the means necessary to force through Obamacare on the American public but leads from behind in the world, it's time to say this word – enough," Romney said.
CNN exit polls suggest that Romney will end up with about 47 percent of the vote, followed by Santorum with about 35 percent of the vote. Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul will likely each receive close to 10 percent of the vote.
In the Illinois primary, voters place separate votes for the candidate they prefer and for the delegates to represent those candidates at the convention. So, it is too early to tell at the time of publication how many delegates each candidate will receive.
A plurality of voters, 35 percent, said beating President Obama was the most important quality in a candidate and among those, 71 percent chose Romney. Santorum was preferred among voters who said they want a strong conservative, 67 percent, and someone with a strong moral character, 64 percent.
As in other states, Santorum won the evangelical vote, but the margin was not large. Santorum won 47 percent of evangelicals to Romney's 35 percent. Romney, on the other hand, won 51 percent of non-evangelicals to Santorum's 47 percent, and non-evangelicals comprised 58 percent of voters.
Also consistent with the pattern in other states, Romney did well in urban areas and the suburbs surrounding them, while Santorum got most of his votes in rural areas. In Illinois, this meant that Romney was strongest in and around Chicago and Santorum was able win in the less populated areas in the rest of the state. About half of the population of Illinois, and about two-thirds of the available delegates, are in Chicago and the surrounding area.
Romney has struggled at times to win the support of the Tea Party, but he won the Tea Party vote in Illinois, 43 percent to Santorum's 37 percent, and those voters were 57 percent of the electorate.
The next contest will be Saturday's Louisiana primary where a Monday Magellan Strategies poll of 2,018 likely primary voters showed Santorum leading by 13 percentage points (margin of error is +/- 2.18 percentage points).
When Romney's wife, Ann, was introducing her husband before his victory speech, she got some laughter from the audience when she was thanking supporters and mispronounced the name of the Republican's 1996 presidential nominee.
"I forgot, Congressman Dan Bold," Ann Romney said.
"Bob Dole," Mitt Romney corrected.
Ann Romney also wished her husband a happy anniversary. They will have been married 43 years on Wednesday.