COLLINSVILLE, Ill. — Looking to rebound decisively after a pair of third-place finishes in Alabama and Mississippi last week, Mitt Romney returned to Illinois on Saturday night focused on attacking potential strongholds for Rick Santorum before Tuesday's Republican presidential primary.
Barely a week ago, Romney and his campaign team seemed so confident about their prospects in Illinois that they were planning not to visit the state until the eve of the primary. But that all changed after Tuesday.
Though still heavily favored to win Illinois, the former Massachusetts governor nonetheless tore up his schedule and cut short a campaign trip to Puerto Rico, which holds its primary today, to devote extra days to a contest that he hopes will restore his momentum in the battle for the nomination.
Though Chicago and its suburbs will cast a majority of the votes on Tuesday, the smaller towns far from the city drew the leading Republican candidates on Saturday.
Romney's greatest strength will be in the Chicago area, where Republicans are fiscally conservative but more moderate on social issues. In downstate Illinois, particularly where Santorum campaigned on Saturday, the population is sparser, but the former Pennsylvania senator's social conservatism and moral passion are likely to find considerable support there.
Santorum scheduled three stops in central and southern Illinois, while Romney's town hall was across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
At a midafternoon rally in Effingham, Santorum drew a crowd approaching 1,000 people. There he lashed out at Romney, calling him a moderate who would not be able to draw a sharp contrast with President Barack Obama in the general election.
As a voice cried out from the audience, "Down with Obama," Santorum pressed his argument that Republicans should not nominate someone "who agrees with that horrible record" of the president.
As he does at nearly every stop, Santorum attacked Romney for enacting a health care plan in Massachusetts that he said was a model for the law Obama championed and signed as president. "We need someone who can go out and take President Obama on," he said.
Santorum said that if voters deliver him a victory on Tuesday, "I guarantee you that we will win this nomination. We will nominate a conservative, and if we nominate a conservative, we will beat Obama."
As if to hedge his bets, Santorum planned to leave the state today to campaign in Louisiana, whose primary next Saturday may offer him a chance to rebound if he loses Illinois on Tuesday.