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For once, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has met or even exceeded the expectations that were set for him. When he won the big Midwestern states of Michigan and Ohio, the margins were narrow enough and analysts were not impressed - given his huge advantage in money and organization. But in Illinois last night, even Romney's closest rival, Rick Santorum, did not come within 10 points.
NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.
ARI SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Michigan and Ohio were hard-fought, grinding wins for Romney. Illinois was very different. At his election night rally in Schaumburg the results came in early, and they were decisive.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
SHAPIRO: Romney won across a wide range of demographics. He even beat Santorum among married women and Tea Party supporters - two groups that have not gone for him in other states.
MITT ROMNEY: Elections are about choices, and today hundreds of thousands of people in Illinois have joined millions of people across the country to join our cause.
SHAPIRO: The election here did have one thing in common with Michigan and Ohio; Romney drowned the voters and his rivals in a costly wave of robocalls and TV ads that built his lead in the polls.
Yesterday afternoon during an online forum with users of Google Plus, Romney explained that he spends more time raising money than many might guess.
ROMNEY: I woke up this morning and found I did not have any shirts that would be appropriate for a fundraiser. So I had to wash my shirt out in the sink. And then I thought, how am I going to get this thing dried fast enough? So I got the iron out. It took me about 20 minutes to iron it dry.
SHAPIRO: By the time Romney took the stage in front of a cheering crowd in Schaumburg last night, his collar looked starched and perfect - camera-ready for a moment that may be used in campaign ads in the fall. Romney's message was also about the fall campaign.
ROMNEY: It's time to say these words. This word. Enough. We've had enough.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
SHAPIRO: Romney focused on the big picture, as he has all week. Instead of talking about delegate math or the road to the Republican nomination, he spoke of sweeping themes - economic freedom and the faults of the Obama administration.
(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)
ROMNEY: The proof of the president's failure is seeing how tepid this economy – this economic recovery is. I mean this administration thinks that the economy is struggling because the stimulus wasn't large enough.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
ROMNEY: The truth is, the economy is struggling because the government is too big.
SHAPIRO: Hours before the rally started, a line of supporters stretched far down the hall of the convention center. Lisa LaButte was at the very front of the line.
LISA LABUTTE: I got here at 4:00. I went...
SHAPIRO: Oh my goodness.
LABUTTE: Yeah. I went upstairs, I had a salad and just took my time because I realized, OK, I was a little crazy getting here that early. But...
SHAPIRO: You know, even a lot of people who are big supporters of Romney say people who like Romney may not be enthusiastic, the kind of people who will wait in line for three hours to see Romney.
LABUTTE: Yeah. Oh no. I think that's, I think that's a false message that's somehow getting out that he's not stirring us up. And I can tell you right now, we're pretty stirred.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
SHAPIRO: Rick Santorum didn't even stay in Illinois for the results. He held a rally in his home state of Pennsylvania, where he said the biggest issue in this race is not the economy or the family, but freedom.
RICK SANTORUM: I was pleased to hear before I came out that Governor Romney is now adopting that theme as his speech tonight. I am glad we are moving the debate here in the Republican Party.
SHAPIRO: The Romney campaign would like its Illinois victory to give Santorum the push he needs to drop out. But Santorum is counting on the race to make one more U-turn when the socially conservative state of Louisiana votes this weekend. Then he hopes to do well in April in Wisconsin, Arkansas and Kentucky - all states with far less of the dominating suburban vote that lifted Romney to victory in Illinois.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.