PEORIA, Ill. -– The night of the Ohio primary election, Rick Santorum's longtime adviser Mark Rodgers stood in a high school cafeteria in Steubenville while returns came in and explained the former senator from Pennsylvania's history of upsetting election expectations.
"He almost always outperforms general polling expectations, because when you look at the depth of commitment and the resilience of the vote that he has, it sticks," Rodgers told The Huffington Post. "And so, where other kind of candidates' bases will waver, Rick's just sticks."
Santorum didn't do better than polls had projected him to do that night in Ohio two weeks ago, and lost. But he shocked the political world one week ago by winning Mississippi and Alabama, despite polls indicating he was most likely to come in second or third in both states.
The insurgent presidential candidate and his supporters are pulling for another surprise on Tuesday in Illinois, where two polls Monday showed frontrunner Mitt Romney with a double-digit lead.
"A week ago, I was doing rallies in Alabama and Mississippi, and every single poll had us behind. Everyone said, especially in Mississippi, we had no chance," Santorum said at an afternoon rally in Moline.
"The prognosticators gave us I think a 2 percent chance of winning the state of Mississippi and a 12 percent chance of winning the state of Alabama," he said. "Well now the prognosticators give us about a 10 percent chance of winning the state of Illinois. That puts us about in between those two."
The crowd of about 250 or so, seated in chairs in a ballroom on the third floor of an office building in the modest downtown, laughed, and then applauded.
"You don't get a chance very often to speak loudly as conservatives in Illinois," Santorum said. "But you can in this race. This race is a primary. It's all about who's energized, who's excited, who's going to get their people out to the polls."
He made clear he was banking on portions of the state outside Chicago and its suburbs to carry him to an improbable victory. If "Downstate comes up big with a huge vote, then amazing things can happen," he said.
The results from Mississippi and Alabama a week ago were fresh in the minds of Santorum's supporters as well.
"I think he's liable to do the same thing he's been doing the last few times: surprise people," said Roger Moyer, general moderator of the Bible Missionary Church, a denomination that he said has around 700 churches around the world. "He started surprising people when people start listening to him," Moyer said.
At Santorum's last stop of the day, several hundred people -– including a handful of people supporting Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) holding signs -- stood in the parking lot of Davis Bros Pizza on a gorgeous evening that felt like the late spring, not the end of winter.
Santorum asked the crowd if they knew who was the last person to lose a race for the U.S. Senate only to later become president.
"Lincoln!" several in the crowd shouted, referring to the nation's 16th president.
Santorum, who will hold his election night rally Tuesday evening in Gettysburg in part as an homage to Lincoln, smiled. "Lincoln's not a bad role model when it comes to those things," Santorum said.
Romney campaign workers avoided signs of overconfidence given last week's debacle, where they allowed expectations for a win in Mississippi to take root. "We expect a tighter race than the public polling suggests," a senior Romney campaign official told HuffPost.
But Romney's Boston headquarters still had a quiet confidence that their lead in Illinois would hold, based largely on Romney's significant advantage with moderate Republican voters in and around Chicago, the state's most populous area.
Santorum's trek across Illinois Monday was dominated by comments he made at two separate stops in which he argued that the issue of government control of health care is more important than the economy.
"I don't care what the unemployment rate is going to be. It doesn't matter to me," Santorum said in Moline. "My campaign doesn't hinge on unemployment rates and growth rates. There's something more foundational that's going on here."
Santorum was trying to make a point that he believes the size and scope of government, especially in the health care sector, is a threat to American's freedoms. But the comment reinforced the image of him as more interested in social issues and moralizing than in helping jobless Americans find work.
Earlier in the day, he said something similar in Rockford: "The issue in this race is not the economy."
"The reason the economy is an issue in this race is because we have a government that is oppressing its people and taking away their freedom, and the economy is suffering as a result," Santorum said.
When he spoke with reporters in Moline, Santorum backpedaled on his comment about the unemployment rate.
"Of course I care about the unemployment rate. I want the unemployment rate to go down," he said. "But I'm saying, my candidacy doesn’t hinge on whether the unemployment rate goes up and down. Our candidacy is about something that transcends that. It's about freedom."
Romney, who drew a bigger crowd than Santorum at a town hall forum here in the same city of Peoria, pounced on Santorum's comment.
"One of the people who’s running also for the Republican nomination today said that he doesn’t care about the unemployment rate, that doesn’t bother him. I do care about the unemployment rate, it does bother me," Romney said at the event in Peoria. "I want to put people back to work, I’m concerned about those who are out of work."