03/12/2012 05:06 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2012

Mitt Romney Ahead Of Santorum In Illinois Poll, But Not Downstate

As predicted, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is ahead of fellow GOP presidential hopeful Rick Santorum in a recent Illinois poll -- but the margins are slightly narrower than expected.

A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll published Sunday shows Romney ahead of Santorum in Illinois 35 percent to 31 percent, but shows the socially conservative Santorum leading in southern Illinois.

Though Illinois is generally ignored by the GOP in primary races, analysts such as Nate Silver of the New York Times believe the state will play a bigger role in the upcoming GOP primary than it has previously. Silver called the March 20 election "the perfect battle between the Romney coalition in the Chicago suburbs and the Santorum coalition downstate," adding that Illinois "could be way more important to the nomination process than most people realize."

With 54 delegates at stake and the emotional significance of battling in President Obama's home state, the importance of Illinois has not been lost on Romney.

The Chicago Sun-Times reports that the Restore Our Future Superpac, which supports Romney, has purchased nearly $1 million in television airtime in the state, and the candidate's national staff began arriving in Illinois over the weekend.

Joe Zahm, director of Santorum’s campaign in Illinois, told the paper he expected the ads to be negative.

“A lot of people are turned off and have tuned out of these ads,” Zahm told the paper.

The results of the Tribune poll "mirror the suburban-rural dynamic that played out in Ohio," with Romney winning in Chicago and the suburbs, and Santorum ahead in the "96 counties outside the Chicago area," according to the paper.

Santorum's campaign told NBC Chicago that the candidate has volunteers placed in 14 of the state's 18 districts, manning phone lines and planting yard signs in Republican-leaning districts while avoiding the the Chicago area.

The push from Santorum's camp may be compensating for his ballot troubles in Illinois. The presidential hopeful qualified for the statewide ballot, but failed to file a full slate of delegates for the primary, meaning he can win, at most, 44 of the state's available delegates, but will be exempt from the fight for the remaining ten.

Romney will arrive in Illinois next Monday, and is scheduled for an election night rally near Wheaton, according to NBC Chicago. Santorum will be in the area Friday for a rally at Northridge College Prep in Niles, "a traditionalist Catholic school," the Sun-Times reports.

Newt Gingrich, who is polling at just 12 percent in Illinois, will be in town Wednesday.

For the most part, state GOP leaders have thrown their support behind Romney.

“(Santorum) has no infrastructure, he’s got really no money and I think his message is wrong for us to beat Barack Obama and I think people are figuring that out,” Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady said in an interview with WJBC last week.