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Romney devoting extra time to Illinois

COLLINSVILLE, Ill. -- Looking to rebound decisively after a pair of third-place finishes in Alabama and Mississippi, Mitt Romney returned to Illinois on Saturday night focused on attacking potential strongholds for Rick Santorum before Tuesday's Republican presidential primary.

Though still heavily favored to win Illinois, the former Massachusetts governor tore up his schedule and cut short a campaign trip to Puerto Rico, which holds its primary today, to devote extra days to a contest that he hopes will restore his momentum in the battle for the nomination.

Romney's greatest strength will be in the Chicago area, where Republicans are fiscally conservative but more moderate on social issues. In downstate Illinois, particularly where Santorum campaigned Saturday, his social conservatism and moral passion are likely to find considerable support.

At a midafternoon rally in Effingham, Santorum drew a crowd approaching 1,000 people. There he lashed out at Romney, calling him a moderate who would not be able to draw a sharp contrast with President Barack Obama in the general election.

As a voice cried out from the audience, "Down with Obama," Santorum pressed his argument that Republicans should not nominate someone "who agrees with that horrible record" of the president.

Santorum said that if voters deliver him a victory Tuesday, "I guarantee you that we will win this nomination. We will nominate a conservative, and if we nominate a conservative, we will beat Obama."

As if to hedge his bets, Santorum planned to leave the state today to campaign in Louisiana, whose primary Saturday may offer him a chance to rebound if he loses Illinois.

Santorum made a brief detour to Missouri on Saturday, where Republicans were holding their precinct caucuses. The caucuses are the first of several steps in picking their delegates to the national convention. There were no immediate results from Missouri.

In Missouri's Clay County, arguments between Ron Paul supporters and others became so intense that the caucus chairman threatened to have voters removed by force. Backers of the Lake Jackson congressman said they were upset that their views weren't being heard. "We're just a little frustrated because caucuses are supposed to be run by a very strict set of rules," said Paul supporter John Findlay, who lost his bid to become caucus chairman. "We raised a number of points of order, points of information, points of parliamentary inquiry, many of which have been ignored."

But county Caucus Chairman Ben Wierzbicki said all caucusgoers had been treated fairly.

"Certain people have made it very difficult," he said. "It might be a little crazy, but that's part of it."

Attendees firmly rejected an effort to more closely align the party platform with Paul's views.

This report includes material from McClatchy Newspapers.

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