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Editorial: Illinois moderates remain GOP ‘firewall’

Mitt Romney

Mitt Romney

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Updated: April 22, 2012 10:18AM

Mitt Romney tamed Illinois on Election Day.

In easily defeating social conservative Rick Santorum, Romney smoothed his path to the Republican presidential nomination and answered, at least for now, the burning political question of just what defines the Republican brand in Illinois.

The party here has long been dominated by moderates, but a persnickety strand of social conservatism has tended to rear its head, throwing fiscally conservative but socially moderate candidates like Romney off their game. For every moderate in the mold of former governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar who won statewide, there lurks a shadow conservative candidate who nearly won.

Simply glance back two years to deeply conservative Republican Bill Brady’s surprise win in the gubernational nomination contest. He went on to lose by a hair to Gov. Pat Quinn after his more conservative social views were fully aired, including opposition to abortion even in cases of rape or incest or to protect the health of a woman.

Romney on Tuesday was the latest politician to get spooked by, but ultimately quash, Illinois’ right-of-right strand.

It wasn’t for lack of effort by Santorum, a graduate of Carmel Catholic High School in Mundelein. But while the former Pennsylvania senator’s decision to push social issues above all else may have worked in Mississippi and Alabama, it didn’t fly in Illinois. Romney’s focus on the economy clearly hit the right note in this state.

Take Santorum’s decision to let the Duggar family — known for their reality TV show “19 Kids and Counting” — campaign for him last week. That may have energized Santorum’s evangelical base, reminding them of his strong views against abortion and civil unions and for home-schooling. But among unemployed Republicans in Illinois who expect government to stay out of their personal lives, it likely hit the wrong note.

Santorum also didn’t help his case during a campaign stop in Illinois on Monday. He flubbed his words while attempting to explain the broader scope of his campaign, telling a crowd: “I don’t care what the unemployment rate’s going to be. . . . My campaign doesn’t hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates.”

Romney’s win shows what matters most to the majority of Illinois Republicans and reveals a certain pragmatism — Romney is widely considered the Republican candidate most likely to defeat President Barack Obama in November.

For now, moderates prevail in Illinois, a trend Romney can only hope continues as he moves on to the next contest Saturday in Louisiana.

As Chicago Sun-Times political reporter Abdon M. Pallasch put it in a story on Sunday, Illinois is supposed to stand as a “firewall again conservative uprisings” in a presidential contest. Romney’s commanding win here Tuesday solidifies that reputation and helps steady Romney’s ship for the voting ahead.

The Republican contest could go on for months, but Romney’s win in moderate Illinois likely shortens the calendar.

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