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CHICAGO — Illinois voters went to the polls Tuesday with the rare chance to weigh in on a presidential nomination race that hadn't been decided, as well as congressional and legislative races that could shape state politics for years to come.
Despite unseasonably warm and sunny weather — or perhaps because of it — elections officials reported very light turnout in the first few hours after polls opened, Chicago Board of Election Commissioners spokesman Jim Allen said. Only minor problems were reported, including a power outage in Wheeling that forced some precincts to turn to paper ballots.
Republican voters will play an important role in the battle between Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum for the GOP presidential nomination. A Romney loss here Tuesday would all but destroy his battered image as the party's inevitable nominee, while a Santorum loss would deepen doubts about whether he can win any but the most conservative states.
Romney largely ignored his Republican opponent, focusing instead on President Barack Obama as he traveled the state Monday. In Springfield, he said Obama's policies made the recession deeper than it had to be. At a speech in Chicago, the former Massachusetts governor accused Obama of an "assault on our economic freedom."
Santorum, a former Pennsylvania senator, presented his campaign as an issue of patriotism. He urged his supporters to take action, as the Founding Fathers and the soldiers of World War II did.
Making several downstate appearances, from Rockford to Ronald Reagan's hometown of Dixon, he also pleaded with supporters to head for the polls and take other people with them. It was an acknowledgment that a big turnout by anti-Romney conservatives was key to him winning in a state that has traditionally been friendlier to moderates.
"Step forward. This is the most important election of your lifetime," he said.
Thanks to the once-a-decade chore of drawing new boundaries for congressional and legislative districts, voters around the state have some other big decisions to make as well.
The Democratic majority at the state Capitol drew the new maps to make life difficult for Republicans. As a result, incumbent U.S. Reps. Donald Manzullo and Adam Kinzinger are battling for political survival in northwestern Illinois.
On the Democratic side, U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. of Chicago has been weakened by his links to felon and ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, as well as his admission of an affair. With his new district now stretching into more rural territory, Jackson faces a challenge from Debbie Halvorson, a former member of Congress from Crete.
In the Legislature, at least four incumbent Republicans will be out after the primary. That's because eight lawmakers wound up facing each other under the new districts drawn by Democrats. The lawmakers at risk include the top Republican in DuPage County, a candidate for governor in 2010 and a member of the GOP's state central committee.
The primary also presents an awkward situation for Democrats.
State Rep. Derrick Smith of Chicago, who was recently hit with federal bribery charges, is on the ballot. His opponent is a former Republican official now claiming to be a Democrat. So party leaders find themselves choosing between backing a possible felon or someone they consider a member of the opposite party.
Also, Cook County Democrats will decide whether to stick with a recently appointed member of the Illinois Supreme Court or nominate someone else for a 10-year term on the bench.
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