By STEVE PEOPLES, ASSOCIATED PRESS
CHICAGO — There will be no knockout punch, but an increasingly confident Mitt Romney expects to tighten his grasp on the Republican presidential nomination with the Illinois primary.
Romney is surging in Illinois polls after the race was seen as a statistical tie just a week ago. He's riding momentum from a lopsided weekend victory in Puerto Rico punctuated by apparent missteps from rival rick Santorum on the eve of Tuesday's Illinois contest.
Romney's wife, Ann, suggested in recent days that Illinois voters could send a strong message that now is the time to coalesce behind one candidate. Romney is eager to move beyond the expensive and extended Republican contest to focus on President Barack Obama in the general election. But he's struggled to win over skeptical conservatives.
"I fully expect him to win ... and when he does, I think it'll be yet another step towards the nomination," said Rep. Aaron Schock, R-Ill., who campaigned alongside Romney on Monday. "You know this is the only candidate the White House fears about winning the nomination."
Romney has already captured more delegates than his opponents combined.
There are 54 delegates up for grabs in Tuesday's primary. But Santorum can't win 10 of them because his campaign didn't file the proper paperwork.
That means Romney is likely to win the delegate battle, even if he loses the popular vote. Still, Romney and his allies have spent a combined $3.5 million on Illinois television ads to try to prevent that from happening.
Santorum may not have helped himself Monday, when he suggested that neither the economy nor the unemployment rate was his top concern. He later explained his comments as being about freedom, not the economy.
"The problem with the economy is government taking people's freedom away and advancing regulations, destroying and undermining businesses ability to be problem solvers," he told Chicago radio station WLS. "Americans don't take kindly to the yoke of government, and we don't do very well. Our economy struggles when that happens."
The original comments sparked a rash of criticism that Romney picked up on at his final campaign stop of the day at Bradley University in central Illinois.
"One of the people who is running also for the Republican nomination today said that he doesn't care about the unemployment rate," Romney told college students in Peoria, Ill. "It does bother me. I want to get people back to work. I am concerned about those how are out of work."
Check out the slideshow below for more on the Romney campaign.