03/17/2012 11:03 EDT | Updated 05/17/2012 05:12 EDT

Romney sees need for big win in Illinois

Republicans caucused in Missouri on Saturday and vote in Puerto Rico's primary on Sunday, but the party's presidential hopefuls have already turned their eyes toward Illinois.

Confident of victory in the American commonwealth that sends delegates to the conventions but whose citizens do not have the vote, front-runner Mitt Romney cut short his planned weekend in Puerto Rico to hit the trail in Illinois on Saturday, adding extra campaign stops in a bid to turn back the resurgent Rick Santorum.

Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul are also campaigning in President Barack Obama's home state.

The change in campaign plans suggest the former Massachusetts governor is feeling pressure for a substantial victory in Illinois following Santorum's recent surprise victories in Alabama and Mississippi.

The former Pennsylvania senator didn't spend much time in Puerto Rico, but he likely cost himself votes with controversial statements about its language, suggesting that citizens there would have to speak English if they hoped to campaign for statehood. Aides later tried to put a better face on Santorum's statement, but the damage appeared to be done, virtually ensuring Romney would pick up most of Puerto Rico's 20 delegates.

The island's political status — statehood, independence or no change from its status as a U.S. commonwealth — is the critical issue underlying Sunday's primary, but protecting the culture and language of the island is an emotional part of the equation. Puerto Ricans will vote on the island's status in November.

Santorum spent Saturday morning in Missouri, where he has already won a primary that awarded no delegates to the party's national convention, before moving on to Illinois. Missouri Republicans were meeting in county caucuses Saturday, the first step toward choosing delegates to the national convention who are committed to specific candidates.

Romney has eked out victories over Santorum in Michigan and Ohio, but polling suggests Romney's lead in Illinois has slipped badly, though he is still seen as leading thanks to urban and suburban voters in and around Chicago. But they say that after the ups and downs of the past few months, they're not taking the state for granted. Santorum's popularity with evangelical conservatives could make him appealing in the rural downstate area.

"This is not a cycle for confidence. This is a cycle for hard work," said Ron Kaufman, a top Romney adviser.

Delegate count

Romney has captured 495 delegates to the Republican National Convention, more than all of his rivals combined. Santorum stands at 252, Newt Gingrich has 131 and Texas Representative Ron Paul is at 48, according to an Associated Press projection. That puts Romney on pace to win the required 1,144 delegates in June contests.

Santorum is looking for another primary shocker in Illinois on Tuesday and beyond to Louisiana's primary next Saturday, which is more favourable territory. He is trying to make the case that Romney and Obama are indistinguishable on key issues of the day.

"People ask me why I am the best candidate to run against Barack Obama," Santorum said at a campaign stop Saturday afternoon in the southern Illinois town of Effingham. "I feel like in some respects like I am running against Barack Obama here in this primary because Mitt Romney has the same positions as Barack Obama in this primary."

Santorum reminded the crowd, filled with supporters of the limited government, anti-tax Tea Party movement, that Massachusetts enacted a health insurance mandate that some regard as a template for the national heath-care reform law that foes deride as "Obamacare." He said Romney wouldn't be able to effectively combat Obama on the issue as the Republican nominee.

Likewise, he likened Romney's moves to regulate carbon emissions to what he called a strategy out of former vice-president Al Gore's anti-global warming playbook.