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First Thoughts: All eyes on Illinois

Mitt Romney is hoping a decisive win in Illinois will quiet talk that the Republican nominating fight could end in the first contested RNC since 1976. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd shares his first reads of the day.

All eyes on Illinois… Tonight’s primary gives Romney an opportunity to change the perception about the GOP race, even if he can’t change the math on getting to 1,144… Caution about tonight’s race: The statewide presidential preference vote doesn’t determine delegates; voters have to select pledged delegates for each candidate… Polls close at 8:00 pm ET… Obama and Romney have opposite fundraising problems… Paul Ryan’s Budget, Part 2… But don’t forget: Ryan voted against Simpson-Bowles.

*** All eyes on Illinois: The earliest Mitt Romney could win the 1,144 delegates needed to capture the GOP nomination, per our count, is May 29, and that’s assuming he wins every single delegate after today. If you assume that he wins a 60%-40% split of the remaining the delegates, Romney won’t get to 1,144 until June 26, when Utah holds its primary. And if Romney and Rick Santorum continue to trade victories as they’ve been doing over the past month -- with Santorum winning his demographic strongholds and Romney winning his -- Romney would fall about 50 delegates short of the magic number, according to our math. So that’s the delegate reality for the former Massachusetts governor: He leads, he isn’t going to lose his lead, yet crossing the finish line won’t be easy or come quickly. Romney can’t change the math, but he can change the perception of the race. And he gets another chance to do so in today’s Illinois primary.

Don Emmert / AFP - Getty Images

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney waves to supporters at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill.

*** How Romney can change the perception: Every time Romney has had an opportunity to put the race away -- by winning in South Carolina, by winning convincingly in Ohio, by winning just one Deep South state Tennessee, Alabama or Mississippi -- he’s failed to do so. But by decisively winning tonight in Illinois (and we’re talking about a double-digit-plus victory and breaking 50%), Romney can deliver a perception blow to Santorum, extinguishing the former Pennsylvania senator’s “insurgent fire,” as the New York Times puts it. And sweeping the April 3 contests -- with the crown jewel being Wisconsin -- would serve as an exclamation point. That probably would finally get the Haley Barbours, the Mitch Danielseseseses (say it with us), and the Paul Ryans (more on him below) off the sidelines. But if Romney only ekes out a single-digit victory tonight after outspending Santorum 7-1, and if he loses Wisconsin, then this demographic split would be for real. And that means this GOP race would go into June or beyond.

*** How Illinois awards its delegates: Per NBC’s John Bailey, Illinois allocates its delegates (54 which are up for grabs tonight) in an unorthodox way. While there is a statewide preference vote for president, the actual delegates are individually elected in each congressional district. So when a voter goes to fill out a ballot, there’s a section where they will vote for a presidential candidate and then there’s a second section for delegates with the delegates’ pledged candidate printed next to their name -- for example: JOHN SMITH (ROMNEY). Each district is given between two and four delegates, and that’s weighted based on how strongly Republican a district has voted in the past. Do note: Santorum failed to file delegate slates in four Illinois districts -- the 4th, 5th, 7th, and 13th districts -- so he’ll miss out on a combined 10 delegates. By the way, Romney’s delegates are listed first on every Congressional District ballot. Why? They were the only ones to file their full slate of delegates in the first hour of filing. The rest of the delegate candidates are listed in order that they were filed with the state. Translation: Santorum’s slates (where available) are last.

*** What else you need to know: Polls close in Illinois at 8:00 pm ET… In addition to tonight’s 54 delegates, the state will elect 12 more delegates at its June convention… Early voting has been going on in Illinois for nearly a month… Last cycle, Illinois held its primary on Super Tuesday, so the race was still competitive at the time: Nearly 900,000 Republicans turned out (899,422 to be exact), and John McCain won the state with 47.5% of the vote, Romney finished second with 29%, and Mike Huckabee was third with 16.5% (McCain nearly SWEPT the delegates, by the way)... And in this year’s advertising race in Illinois, Team Romney (the campaign plus the Super PAC) outspent Team Santorum nearly 7-to-1, $3.6 million to $527,000.

*** Opposite fundraising problems: Speaking of fundraising, Romney and Obama have opposite fundraising problems: Obama, as the Washington Post wrote yesterday, isn’t raking in as many high-dollar checks as he did in ’08, while Romney is lacking small grassroots donors. But if you had to choose between a stronghold of large donors or small grassroots donors, you’d probably choose the latter. Why? You can keep going back to small donors, while you can’t if someone has already cut you $2,500 checks for the primary and general. In fact, according to an analysis by the Campaign Finance Institute, two-thirds of Romney’s fundraising through Dec. 31, 2011 had come from donors giving $2,500. By comparison, just 16% of Obama’s fundraising comes from $2,500 checks. So it’s striking to see that the Romney campaign isn’t spending a single cent on advertising in the upcoming Louisiana (3/24) and Wisconsin (4/3), though the pro-Romney Super PAC has spent a combined $2 million in those two states. Is the Romney campaign -- which had $7.3 million in the bank as of Feb. 29 -- running out of cash? We’ll have an answer a month from now, when we’ll get March FEC numbers. (February FEC numbers are due today.)

*** A look at the upcoming ad spending:
Louisiana
: Restore Our Future $612,000, Red White and Blue Fund $244,000, Winning Freedom $50,000, Santorum $32,000, Winning Our Future $2,900
Wisconsin
: Restore Our Future $1.3 million, Santorum campaign $39,000

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Romney fundraises in the Prairie State and attends his election night party in Schaumburg…Paul appears on The Tonight Show…Gingrich hosts a meet-and-greet in Shreveport, LA…Meanwhile, Santorum hosts his election night party in Gettysburg, PA

*** Paul Ryan’s Budget, Part 2: Besides today’s Illinois primary, the other big story in politics today is the rollout of the House GOP budget. In in a Wall Street Journal op-ed, House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan previews this rollout. “Our budget's Medicare reforms make no changes for those in or near retirement. For those who will retire a decade from now, our plan provides guaranteed coverage options financed by a premium-support payment. And this year, our budget adds even more choices for seniors, including a traditional fee-for-service Medicare option.” NBC’s Frank Thorp reports that the budget also contains tax reform -- having just two income brackets (10% and 25%) and reducing the corporate rate to 25%.

*** Don’t forget: Ryan voted against Simpson-Bowles: In his Wall Street Journal op-ed, Ryan touts this tax reform by saying it was supported by Simpson-Bowles. “Tax reforms based on lowering tax rates and closing loopholes go back to the Reagan administration, when Democrats served as the congressional co-sponsors of the landmark 1986 tax reform law. More recently, the chairmen of President Obama's bipartisan fiscal commission put forward a plan for lower rates and a broader base.” But here’s what undercuts that assertion by Ryan, as well has holding the high ground in the budget debate: He VOTED AGAINST Simpson-Bowles. Here’s something that was supported by Tom Coburn (R) and Dick Durbin (D), but Ryan voted against it. Yes, Ryan has since team up with Sen. Ron Wyden (D) on the altered Medicare proposal. But when he had the opportunity with Simpson-Bowles, Ryan put ideology ahead of bipartisan cooperation -- the exact thing he accuses the president and many Democrats of doing.

*** Biden being Biden: At a fundraiser last night in New Jersey, NBC’s Carrie Dann notes, Vice President Biden engaged in some hyperbole that might get some mileage from those interpreting Biden’s comment as a slight to the masterminds of D-Day or other notable military feats in the past few hundred years. Here’s what Biden said about the Osama bin Laden raid:  "You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan. Never knowing for certain. We never had more than a 48% probability that he was there."

Countdown to Louisiana primary: 4 days
Countdown to DC, Maryland, Wisconsin primaries: 14 days
Countdown to Election Day: 231 days

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