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Illinois Is Best Test of Santorum's Campaign

The following commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet's guest contributor program, which is separate from the company's news coverage.

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- In Mississippi and Alabama, Mitt Romney failed miserably to prove he can win in the South, but now Rick Santorum must prove he can win in a big northern state, where the economy, not social issues, trump. Illinois will prove a great test.

In Alabama and Mississippi, Romney struck out with two principal divisions of the conservative movement -- Tea Party voters focused more on economic issues and Evangelicals more concerned with social issues.

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Among the third important conservative cohort -- more-educated, more-urban and higher-earning voters -- Romney did somewhat better, but their turnout was low indicating a pronounced lack of enthusiasm for his candidacy. To those voters, Romney sounds more reasonable and has a plan to liberate the economy and country from regulatory overreach, federal pending on steroids, and President Obama's constant cultivation of class and racial divisions -- but he appears unauthentic.

Rick Santorum

Romney earned his personal fortune the wrong way -- dealing in financial markets and downsizing companies. Simply, he looks too much like the Wall Street financiers that caused the recent near-death experience of American capitalism. His tenure as Massachusetts governor was punctuated by health care reform legislation, labeled RomneyCare by critics, which provided the template for ObamaCare.

In the general election, Romney would likely win the Deep South, but lasting doubts about his authenticity among conservatives could easily push North Carolina and Virginia into the Obama column -- must-win states, along with Florida, for any GOP nominee.

While Santorum might be able to secure those states, it would prove a more sizeable challenge for him to win in the Midwestern states that will ultimately decide the election

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Tuesday's Illinois primary will tell an interesting tale, because Evangelical Christians compose a much smaller share of the voting population than in the South, and the economy, not social issues, should trump.

Unemployment, at 9.4%, is well above the national average. Although Illinois' rural farm belt is doing well, cashing in on strong demand for corn to make ethanol and soy, its cities are still smarting from the recession.

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