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First Thoughts: Romney holds his ground

The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd recaps Tuesday's primary and explains what's next for the GOP candidates.

Romney holds his ground winning Illinois by 12 points (and widening his delegate lead)… Romney also beginning to find his stump speech… Gingrich, who finished 4th, approaches danger territory -- becoming more fodder for late-night comedians… Paul remains AWOL… Why Romney won Illinois: It’s the demography, stupid… He also rocked the Chicago suburbs… NBC’s new delegate count: Romney 485, Santorum 193, Gingrich 137, Paul 34… Five observations from yesterday’s FEC reports… Wrapping up last night’s congressional primaries… And Obama embarks on his energy-related swing.

*** Romney holds his ground: It wasn't a blowout win or a knockout punch, but Mitt Romney's 12-point victory in Illinois (and his even more decisive delegate haul) was exactly what he needed to do to keep his grasp on the GOP nomination. As for Rick Santorum, it was an expected loss and he kept the primary competitive despite being greatly outspent and out-organized, but it's now more and more difficult to see how he could capture the nomination. Despite what some are saying, however, the race isn't over -- at least not yet: The GOP primary contest moves on to Louisiana, where Santorum is favored. And then, on April 3, it heads to DC, Maryland, and Wisconsin. If Romney pulls off the upset in Louisiana and/or sweeps the April 3 contests (especially Wisconsin), then it will be fair to conclude the race is over. Bottom line: After a rockier-than-expected flight, the landing gear for Air Romney has been lowered, but the plane hasn’t yet touched the ground. Landings get aborted, and this one could, too -- it’s all in the hands of the folks in Wisconsin (or maybe even Louisiana).

Jeff Haynes / Reuters

Mitt Romney won the Illinois Republican primary with ease Tuesday night, allowing him to grow his delegate advantage over his rivals in the fight for the party's presidential nomination.

*** Romney’s also beginning to find his stump speech: While last night’s results in Illinois didn’t reveal any new information about the GOP primary race (more on that below), we learned something from Romney’s victory speech: He’s beginning to get comfortable with a stump speech that might actually last a while. His delivery was looser, and the narrative he’s trying to tell -- that he’s uniquely qualified to do this -- is getting better. He’s the businessman again; he even acknowledges some of his faults as a businessman, but says those lessons will serve him well. And he’s also trying to combine the businessman narrative with a values argument against the president that pays homage to an issue elite conservatives care a lot about: American exceptionalism.  Romney also sounded optimistic. The speech still had its share of empty rhetoric that lacked definition and his examples about the great things America does (like the Hoover Dam and Interstate Highway System) were PUBLIC works projects (and plays into the president’s hands potentially). But overall, it’s an improvement from his previous attempts at a stump and the delivery was better.

*** Gingrich approaches dangerous territory: Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich is getting close to dangerous territory: the embarrassment line. Last night, he finished fourth -- behind Ron Paul -- with just 8%. He appeared on FOX, but he spoke very briefly because he kept getting bumped by the Romney and Santorum speeches. Folks, that tells you all you need to know. Gingrich and his campaign have always been a target for late-night comedians (and they were at it AGAIN last night). But after last night -- and if he doesn’t win Louisiana -- that target is only going to get bigger and bigger.

*** Paul remains AWOL: As for Ron Paul, is he even running for president anymore? Today, he’s AWOL again from the campaign trail; in fact, his last campaign event was a week ago, on March 14. As NBC’s Chris Donovan points out, Paul has run for the GOP nomination in ’08 and in ’12, and -- despite the money he’s raised and the following he now has -- he’s been unable to win a SINGLE state in either cycle.

*** Illinois isn’t Alabama or Mississippi (and it’s not even Ohio): The biggest reason why Romney won in Illinois last night? It’s the demography, stupid. Indeed, we’ve reached the point in the GOP race where all you have to do is plug in a state’s demographic data (ideology, religion, income status), and you can pretty much determine who is going to win. According to the exit poll, just four in 10 GOP primary voters in Illinois described themselves as evangelical Christians -- versus eight in 10 who said that in Alabama and Mississippi. As the Washington Post’s Dan Balz points out, Romney has won every state where exit polls have found evangelical Christians to account for less than 50% of GOP primary voters, and he’s lost every state where they’ve been more than 50%. In addition last night, 29% say they were "very conservative,” compared with 42% who said that in Mississippi and 36% in Alabama. And 37% of Republican primary voters in Illinois said their total family income exceeds $100,000. But just 23% in Alabama and 26% in Mississippi said that. Another way to look at this: Romney has yet to lose a primary in a blue state. Another way to look at this: Romney has yet to lose a PRIMARY in a blue state. (Yes, we know he has lost some blue state CAUCUSES).

*** Rockin’ the suburbs: What also fueled Romney’s win were the Chicago suburbs. His margin of victory was 107,000 votes, but he got a 122,000-vote difference out of these areas -- the Cook County suburbs (45,000), DuPage County (27,000), Lake County (16,000), Chicago (14,000), Will County (8,000), Kane County (7,000), McHenry County (5,000).

*** The delegate count: While Romney won Illinois by 12 points last night (47%-35%), his delegate haul was even bigger. He captured 41 delegates to Santorum’s 10 -- with three delegates still undecided. Here’s NBC’s delegate count to date: Romney 485, Santorum 193, Gingrich 137, Paul 34. According to our math, Romney needs to win about 48% of the remaining delegates to reach 1,114, while Santorum needs to win about 69%.

*** Five observations from the FEC reports: One, Obama's fundraising and cash on hand is on par -- more or less -- with Bush's numbers in '04 (which is surprising given what many, including us, thought he was capable of raising at the beginning of this race)... Two, Romney's burn rate is over 100% (which might explain why the Super PAC, and not the campaign, is airing ads in post-Illinois races)...  Three, the pro-Santorum Super PAC has just $365,000 in the bank (Foster Friess, you have a call on Line 2)... Four, Gingrich now has more in debt ($1.55 million) than cash on hand ($1.54 million)… And five, the pro-Obama Super PAC Priorities USA continues to be a flop, with it raising just $2 million (half of which came from Bill Maher). By the way, don’t overlook the spending numbers for the campaigns. It’s where you learn the philosophies of the campaign. Obama’s campaign is putting a LARGE emphasis (read: money) online. A large chunk of the February spending was devoted to online advertising. Also, do note that the Obama campaign continues to keep overall STAFF salaries down, at least compared to what other campaigns pay, including Romney. In fact, Romney has at least five staffers who make more than Obama’s campaign manager.

*** The February FEC totals:
Obama (raised $21.3 million, spent $12.6 million, $85 million COH)
Romney (raised $12 million, spent $12.4 million, $7.3 million COH)
Santorum (raised $9 million, spent $7.9 million, $2.6 million COH)
Gingrich (raised $2.6 million, spent $2.9 million, $1.5 million COH)
Paul (raised $3.3 million, spent $3.5 million, $1.4 million COH)
Restore Our Future (raised $6.4 million, spent $12.2 million, $10.4 million COH)
Red White and Blue Fund (raised $2.9 million, spent $3.2 million, $365,000 COH)
Winning Our Future (raised $5.7 million -- $5.5 million from the Adelson family -- spent $5.8 million, $2.3 million COH)
Priorities USA (raised $2 million – half coming from Bill Maher – spent $500,000, and has $2.8 million COH)

*** Wrapping up the congressional primaries: There also were plenty of interesting congressional primary contests in Illinois last night. Per msnbc.com’s Mike O’Brien, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R) beat Rep. Don Manzullo (R), allowing Eric Cantor (who had controversially endorsed Kinzinger) to breathe a sign of relief… Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D) beat former Rep. Debbie Halvorson (D)… Tammy Duckworth (D) beat Raja Krishnamoorthi (D) for the right to take on GOP Rep. Joe Walsh… And Brad Schenider beat progressive favorite Ilya Sheyman.

*** On the trail, per NBC’s Adam Perez: Romney fundraises in D.C. and hosts an town hall event in Arbutus, MD...Gingrich visits Louisiana, campaigning in Pineville, Lake Charles, and Lafayette…Santorum also makes a stop in the Pelican State, rallying in Harvey, Mandeville, and Alexandria.

*** All about energy (and gas prices): Lastly, President Obama today embarks on his energy-related swing, giving remarks in Nevada at 4:20 pm ET and in New Mexico at 8:15 pm ET. First Read will have more on this swing later today.

Countdown to Louisiana primary: 3 days
Countdown to DC, Maryland, Wisconsin primaries: 13 days
Countdown to Election Day: 230 days

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