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DAVID GREENE, HOST:
And I'm David Greene.
When it comes to politics in this election cycle, Illinois is a place for grand themes.
INSKEEP: It's the home state of Abraham Lincoln, where several Republican candidates now seek to be the leader of the party of Lincoln.
GREENE: Illinois is also the home state of President Obama, the man Republicans desperately want to replace.
INSKEEP: But before any of them get a chance at that they have to survive the long-running, hand-to-hand combat for the Republican nomination, which gets down to the practical question of piling up convention delegates.
GREENE: Many are at stake in today's Illinois primary where Mitt Romney has spent big money to open up a big lead. And we'll begin our coverage from out on the campaign trail with NPR's Ari Shapiro.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Mitt Romney's election eve rally at Bradley University seemed like a recipe for a cakewalk. The backdrop was a perfect sunset over a castle-shaped building on a balmy evening. Huge flowering trees behind Romney perfumed the whole event. And this is Peoria - a solidly red part of Illinois.
Congressman Aaron Schock, who introduced Romney, even graduated from this school.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
REPRESENTATIVE AARON SCHOCK: And this is our opportunity as Americans to hire one of the best turnaround artists we've ever seen.
SHAPIRO: Romney's opening remarks were all about economic freedom and opportunity. He defended small government, low taxes and minimal regulation.
MITT ROMNEY: These freedoms make us who we are and make us economically successful and prosperous.
SHAPIRO: He even tweaked Rick Santorum for a comment he made earlier in the day.
ROMNEY: One of the people who's running also for the Republican nomination today said that he doesn't care about the unemployment rate. That doesn't bother him. I do care about the unemployment rate. It does bother me.
SHAPIRO: The thing is, when you turn the floor over to questions from the audience, you never know what you'll get.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: So you're all for like, yay freedom, and all this stuff.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: And, yay, like pursuit of happiness. You know what'd make me happy? Free birth control.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND BOOING)
SHAPIRO: The reaction from the audience was a mix of cheers and boos. Romney returned to a line he often uses.
ROMNEY: If you're looking for free stuff you don't have to pay for, vote for the other guy, that's what he's all about. OK? That's not what I'm about.
(SOUNDBITE OF BOOING AND CHEERING)
SHAPIRO: A recent study by the Brookings Institution showed that when government covers the cost of birth control, it actually saves taxpayers money by reducing unwanted pregnancies, particularly among the poor. That study and others like it suggest that eliminating birth control coverage would not reduce the size and cost of government at all.
The second question came from a woman who began by saying: I'm really not talking about birth control when I ask you this question.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: You've made it very clear that you're not in support of Planned Parenthood. But I'm just wondering where you would suggest that the millions of women who receive their health services, such as mammograms and HPV vaccines, go.
SHAPIRO: Well, they can go wherever they'd like to go, this is a free society. But here's what I say, which is the federal government should not tax these people to pay for Planned Parenthood.
These social issues were not the economic themes that Romney had planned to focus on. He returned to his preferred message when a student asked about the cost of education.
ROMNEY: The best thing I can do for student debt is get you a good job when you come out.
SHAPIRO: And he had a similar answer for a realtor, asking how to turn around the housing market.
ROMNEY: The best thing I can do for home values is to get the 8.3 percent of people in this country that are out of work back to work.
SHAPIRO: It was a large crowd but, as the questions demonstrated, not a wholly friendly one.
Christine Slaine is a Bradley University graduate. She's an independent who plans to vote in the Republican primary and she hasn't decided whom to vote for. But Romney did not make a great impression.
CHRISTINE SLAINE: I'm unimpressed by his stance on Planned Parenthood. I do feel that that is something that's necessary for this country and for women. So that may sway my vote.
SHAPIRO: The event had the opposite effect on 19-year-old Natalie Tumms. She describes herself as a left-leaning independent.
NATALIE TUMMS: It kind of made me second guess a couple things.
SHAPIRO: Interesting. In what way?
TUMMS: Well, I would say I'm strongly supporting of social programs and spending for social programs. But to hear candidate Romney talk about how he thinks that there should be more freedom in the economy, it made me start to think about things differently.
SHAPIRO: Tonight, Romney will watch election returns just outside of Chicago. Then it's a flight to Maryland for the next phase in this long-running election drama.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.