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.

Illinois is not nearly as dependent as Michigan on automaking, which was bailed out by Obama, but instead boasts a broad range of manufacturing in chemicals, petroleum refining, industrial machinery, plastics and rubber, as well as supporting logistical services and sophisticated financial activities. Those have recouped sales, but not added enough new high paying jobs, as business are now more burdened by a quagmire of regulations imposed by President Obama -- rules intended to guard against abuse and calamity, but equally potent at denying success and prosperity.

Rick Santorum has proven he can win votes in rural areas and the South where the economically downtrodden cling to guns and bibles, and among the working middle class, who, though more privately tolerant of others sexual preferences, don't like to be forced to publically accept gay unions or pay for others birth control.

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Santorum hasn't shown he has a credible plan for the economy needed to win in northern states with many fewer Evangelicals and more highly educated populations. Merely promising lower taxes, deregulation and freer markets are not enough -- George W. Bush delivered those and with them, Armageddon!

President Obama's approval ratings for managing the economy -- and with those his prospects for reelection -- have proven highly volatile. A few months of decent employment growth and those soared above 50% -- a level pundits say implies invincibility -- but a quick spike in gas prices and those ratings plunge to the low forties -- a level implying certain vulnerability.

Americans, other than those composing the president's loyal liberal base, are greatly suspicious of Obama's economic policies and credentials. His big spending and deficits, hard left inclinations on business and regulatory policy, constant alibiing and reluctance to accept responsibility and make adjustments when things go wrong, make swing voters wholly outcome-oriented in assessing the president.

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Santorum, by knocking off Romney in Illinois, could prove that voters are at least willing to listen to him on the economy, and earn him the opportunity to flesh out a more credible alternative to Obama's program in the fall campaign.

Professor Peter Morici, of the Robert H. Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, is a recognized expert on economic policy and international economics. Prior to joining the university, he served as director of the Office of Economics at the U.S. International Trade Commission. He is the author of 18 books and monographs and has published widely in leading public policy and business journals, including the Harvard Business Review and Foreign Policy. Morici has lectured and offered executive programs at more than 100 institutions, including Columbia University, the Harvard Business School and Oxford University. His views are frequently featured on CNN, CBS, BBC, FOX, ABC, CNBC, NPR, NPB and national broadcast networks around the world.

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