Here we go again -- another Tuesday, another "must-win" primary state for Mitt Romney.
Fifty-four delegates are up for grabs Tuesday when Illinois votes for the Republican presidential nominee. But for the former Massachusetts governor, capturing the popular vote might be just as important as increasing his lead in the battle for delegates.
"Romney could really use a romp in Illinois. It wouldn't put him over the top, but it would put him back on track with a head of steam," said CNN Chief Political Correspondent Candy Crowley.
After finishing third last Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi to his main rival for the nomination, former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, and to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Romney regained a bit of momentum on Sunday when he trounced Santorum in Puerto Rico's primary, getting 83% of the vote and picking up all 20 delegates up for grabs.
Now comes Illinois, with a large, somewhat moderate GOP electorate, thanks to the large number of voters in metropolitan Chicago. Call Illinois the new Michigan, or the new Ohio -- the last two "must-win" states.
Back on February 28, pundits said Romney had to win Michigan, the state where he grew up and where his father was governor. He did.
A week later, on Super Tuesday, political analysts and strategists said Romney had to win the crucial battleground state of Ohio. Again, he did, narrowly edging out Santorum.
"If he and Santorum stay true to the template that fits most of the past contests, Santorum will pull strongly in rural and more conservative downstate Illinois and Romey will do better up north, in the more populous areas, particularly around Chicago and its suburbs," said Crowley, anchor of CNN's "State of the Union."
Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak agrees.
"Illinois presents a must-win for Romney as the state's more moderate makeup and urban population set up better for Romney than Santorum," Mackowiak said.
An American Research Group poll released Monday showed Romney with a 14-point lead over Santorum. According to the survey, which was conducted over the weekend, 44% of likely GOP primary voters in Illinois said they were backing Romney, with 30% supporting Santorum, 13% backing Gingrich and 8% supporting Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.
Romney added events in Illinois on Friday morning and Saturday evening and all day Sunday, cutting back on time in Puerto Rico to Friday evening and Saturday morning.
He also dropped his emphasis on the math that he argued made it clear that he alone has the only shot during the primary and caucus season to reach the 1,144 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
Over the past few days, he appears to be increasing his attention to female voters and to gas prices.
"People across this country are wondering what they are going to do with these gasoline prices," Romney said Monday morning at an event in Springfield. "A lot of moms are wondering if they can take their kids from event to event, from school to soccer practice. People are hurting in this country with gasoline prices the way they are. And the prices are, to a degree, a result of failed economic policies by this president."
And he continued to tout his economic credentials and attack Santorum over the economy.
"I am someone experienced in the economy. I am not an economic lightweight. President Obama is. We are not going to be successful replacing an economic lightweight with another economic lightweight. We are going to have replace him with someone who knows how to run this economy."
In response, Santorum asked if Americans wanted a president with ties to big banks.
"I heard Gov. Romney here called me an 'economic lightweight' because I wasn't a Wall Street financier like he was. Do you really believe this country wants to elect a Wall Street financier as the president of the United States?" Santorum asked at a campaign rally in Rockford.
Later Monday, the two campaigns argued over a quote from Santorum at a rally in Moline, Illinois, in which he hit on an often-repeated theme that the two biggest issues in the campaign were freedom and health care, and Romney would be a weaker candidate on the latter because the health care reform effort Romney oversaw in Massachusetts was the "blueprint for Obamacare."
"We need a candidate who's going to be a fighter for freedom -- who's going to get up and make that the central theme in this race, because it is the central theme in this race. I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me. My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. There's something more foundational that's going on here," Santorum said.
Following Santorum's speech, Romney's team blasted out an e-mail to reporters with a link to a five-second clip of Santorum saying: "I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me."
In the e-mail from Romney's campaign, spokeswoman Andrea Saul criticized Santorum over the comment.
"Wow. Sen. Santorum may not care about the unemployment rate in this country or the nearly 24 million Americans struggling for work, but Mitt Romney does and is running to get people back to work," Saul said.
After Santorum's event, he sought to clear up his remarks, telling reporters that he is concerned about the unemployment rate.
"Of course I care about the unemployment rate, I want the unemployment rate to go down, but I'm saying my candidacy doesn't hinge on whether the unemployment rate goes up or down," Santorum said. "Our candidacy is about something that transcends things, about freedom."
Later, Santorum's spokesman Hogan Gidley said in a statement to CNN that Romney's team was "trying to deceive voters."
"Rick was making the point that the Santorum campaign is not based solely on unemployment rates -- it's based on returning freedom and restoring this country's greatness -- and that it's a mistake for anyone to try and reduce the idea of America to just the 'economy.' Sadly, Mitt Romney thinks this country and this election should be reduced to math, money and spreadsheets," Gidley said.
Regardless of what polling shows, Santorum remains confident. And he knows the stakes hold in Illinois.
"If we're able to get out of Illinois with a huge or surprise win, I guarantee you, I guarantee you, that we will win this nomination. We will nominate a conservative, we will beat Barack Obama in the fall election," he told voters Saturday night in Effingham, Illinois.