BAYAMON, Puerto Rico (AP) - Looking toward the critical primary in Illinois, Republican presidential front-runner Mitt Romney wrapped up a shortened campaign trip to Puerto Rico on Saturday as he prepared for more tough contests against chief rival Rick Santorum.
The former Massachusetts governor dramatically curtailed his trip to the U.S. territory, which holds its primary Sunday, in favor of spending more time in Illinois, where polls have shown him slightly ahead of Santorum. Romney had planned to spend the weekend and visit a polling place Sunday, but instead left the island immediately after a morning appearance.
Santorum left Puerto Rico earlier this week and was spending the
morning in Missouri, where he already won a primary that awarded no
delegates. Missouri Republicans were meeting in county caucuses
Saturday, the first step toward choosing delegates to the national convention who are committed to specific candidates. Santorum was
headed to Illinois Saturday night.
Romney campaigned Saturday morning with Puerto Rican Gov. Luis
Fortuno, shopping for tropical fruit and meeting with voters a day after a massive, energetic rally in San Juan celebrated his arrival here.
"It was Ronald Reagan who very famously in our party said that it was important for the people of Puerto Rico to have the choice to become a state, and if the people of Puerto Rico choose that path, I will be happy to lead that effort in Washington," Romney said after the crowd began chanting "Statehood now! Statehood now!"
The island's political status - statehood, independence or no change - is the critical issue underlying Sunday's primary. Puerto Ricans will vote on the island's status in November.
Romney has support from much of the establishment here, including Fortuno, who supports making the island the fifty-first state, and Romney is confident about his prospects for winning many of the island's 20 delegates. Santorum campaigned here earlier in the week and said he would support statehood if the November vote were decisive. Santorum also spent days explaining his comment that English would have to become the island's main language for Puerto Rico to realize statehood. That's an emotional issue because only a fraction of Puerto Rico's residents speak English fluently, and many feel strongly about controlling their own cultural and linguistic identity.
Puerto Rico's delegates will be split proportionally among the candidates, though if someone wins more than 50 percent of the vote
they'll receive all 20.
As he shopped for tropical fruit - including papayas, mangoes and clementines - Romney said he was "cautiously optimistic that we're going to do well in Puerto Rico."
He was less certain about Illinois.
"You know, I hope that we're going to do well there as well. But I'm going to be there this afternoon, so we'll see," Romney said.
Romney wasn't initially supposed to be in Illinois on Saturday. That was before he lost Mississippi and Alabama to rival Santorum, ratcheting up pressure for him to do well in Illinois. Romney has eked out victories over Santorum in Michigan and Ohio, two other critical Midwestern states, as he has struggled to stave off the former Pennsylvania senator's challenge.
Much of the public polling shows Romney ahead in Illinois, and aides say he's helped by urban and suburban voters in and around Chicago.
But they say that after the ups and downs of the past few months, they're not taking the state for granted.
"This is not a cycle for confidence. This is a cycle for hard work," said Ron Kaufman, a top Romney adviser.
To that end, Romney added an extra Illinois stop Friday morning, and he will campaign in Edwardsville, near St. Louis, Mo. He now has a full day of campaigning in Illinois on Sunday, with three campaign stops and an appearance on Fox News Sunday.
Campaigning in southern Illinois Saturday afternoon, Santorum was looking to lay the ground for another primary shocker on Tuesday, lumping fellow Republican Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama on everything from health policy to fossil-fuel regulations.
"People ask me why I am the best candidate to run against Barack Obama," Santorum said. "I feel like in some respects like I am running against Barack Obama here in this primary because Mitt Romney has the same positions as Barack Obama in this primary."
Earlier Saturday Santorum attended at a rally of about 100 people in the gymnasium of a Christian school that was to host a caucus a couple hours later. He spoke less than four minutes and shook hands for another 10 before heading out to another caucus site. He arrived earlier than scheduled and left before some supporters got there.
Acknowledging there would be no winner Saturday, Santorum told a reporter that Missouri's caucuses still were important.
"Delegates. It's as simple as that. They matter," Santorum said.
Romney leads Santorum in delegates nationwide 495 to 252, according to the latest count by The Associated Press. At his caucus-site visits, Santorum noted he was being outspent by Romney but said he can overcome that.
"We don't have the money," Santorum said at a grocery-store caucus site in Wildwood. "We have you, and I'll tell you what - I'll take you over the money any day of the week."