CHICAGO (AP) -- 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."
SANTORUM WATCHES RETURNS FROM GETTYSBURG
As Illinois Republicans vote, Santorum is reconnecting with a son of Illinois remembered for one afternoon he spent in Pennsylvania.
Santorum plans to watch Tuesday's results from Illinois at a campaign party in Gettysburg, Pa., the venue for President Abraham Lincoln's famous Civil War address.
Santorum had campaigned in Illinois and looks to continue his trend of doing well in rural, conservative areas while largely ceding urban areas to Republican front-runner Mitt Romney.
His aides cast his decision to return to Pennsylvania as a nod to Illinois' famous son. It's also a political move. Santorum represented Pennsylvania in the House and the Senate, and his aides have said he must do well there to continue a campaign that lags behind Romney in terms of money, organization and delegates.
Heading into Tuesday, The Associated Press delegate count showed Romney had amassed 521 delegates. Santorum had 253, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich had 136 and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas had 50.
Romney is on pace to collect the 1,144 delegates needed to win the nomination in June unless Santorum or Gingrich is able to start posting decisive wins. Neither Santorum nor Gingrich has signaled he will exit the race. That could mean they will continue to split the vote of conservatives voters who have never warmed to Romney.
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)