Obama routs Clinton in Illinois; McCain beats Romney

By Dennis Conrad

CHICAGO – Buoyed by voters embracing his message of change, Barack Obama routed Hillary Clinton in the Illinois primary on Tuesday, a home-state victory that offered them one of the richest prizes in the nation. Sen. John McCain easily defeated Mitt Romney on the Republican side.

With 62 percent of precincts reporting, Obama had 815,300 votes, or 65 percent, and Clinton had 403,865 votes, or 32 percent. With 61 percent of precincts reporting in the GOP race, McCain had 207,535 votes, or 48 percent, and Romney had 121,493 votes, or 28 percent. Other candidates lagged far behind.

Obama and Clinton are locked in a nationwide battle for Democratic delegates in their historic bid for the White House.

Of Illinois’ 153 Democratic delegates – trailing only California and New York in Super Tuesday states – 100 will be split based on the vote in each congressional district, and 53 will be divided based on the statewide popular vote. A candidate must get 15 percent of the vote in a district to earn delegates.

The high-profile Democratic contest to pick the first black or female presidential nominee helped lure tens of thousands of early voters in Illinois, where bad weather arrived at the evening rush hour as some of the state’s 7.1 million registered voters scrambled to get to the polls.

Casey Beck, a 19-year-old sophomore at Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, said he cast his first-ever vote for Obama – and against Clinton. His top concern was the war in Iraq, where some of his high school classmates are serving.

“I want us to get out of Iraq (but) I don’t want us to just leave Iraq and it turn back the way it was,” he said. “I don’t think Barack would do that.”

Obama bested Clinton regardless of the voter’s race, gender or age, according to exit polls.

John Topliffe, a 60-year-old retired Air Force pilot from the St. Louis area, previously voted twice for President Bush. But he backed Obama in the primary.

“Fairly early, I noticed that he kind of stood above the rest, above the fray and all the baloney,” Topliffe said. “I put him with John Kennedy. I think he’s got the same intelligence, the same charisma. I think he’d be a good president.”

Illinois traditionally holds its primary in mid-March, when results in early states have often settled the nominees. This year, state lawmakers moved the primary up to give a boost to Obama, the freshman Illinois senator who launched his campaign almost exactly a year ago. Clinton, the New York senator who grew up in suburban Park Ridge, focused her efforts on other states.

At Beulah Shoesmith Elementary School on Chicago’s South Side, Obama and his wife, Michelle, were greeted by cheers as they arrived to cast ballots. Obama shook hands with the crowd and shouted, “Are you fired up? Are you ready to go?”

Some 350 miles away, at the southern tip of Illinois, 49-year-old food inspector Willis Jackson of Cairo cast his vote for Obama.

“I think he’s somebody fresh,” Jackson said. “We need somebody fresh in there.”

Dan White, executive director of the Illinois State Board of Elections, said no major voting problems had been reported, though Cook County officials said at least two polling places in the Chicago area would stay open an hour later after getting a late start.

In previous presidential primaries, Illinois has had a voter turnout slightly under 30 percent. But other important races could add to the tally, including congressional seats being vacated by Republicans Dennis Hastert, Ray LaHood and Jerry Weller. Democrats had some key primaries as well, though Rep. Dan Lipinski fended off three challengers.

Steve Sauerberg, backed by the Illinois GOP, won the chance to take on Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin this fall in what many believe will be an uphill fight against the well-funded incumbent.

In McLean County, officials said turnout appeared to be headed much higher than the 31 percent for the 2004 presidential primary. The county, anchored by Bloomington, had already set a record for early and absentee ballots.

Jackson County Clerk Larry Reinhardt said his staff had sent out the highest number of ballots ever for a primary election, about 16,000, and some precincts were requesting more on Tuesday.

“That means we’re setting new records in those precincts,” Reinhardt said.

Voters trickled into a polling place at the Eugene Field School in Park Ridge, the same school Clinton attended as an elementary student. Debbie Kelly, a 41-year-old self-employed contractor, said she planned to vote for Clinton.

“I would love to see a woman in office,” she said. “Other countries have done it and I think it’s time for the U.S.”

The GOP fight for the state’s 57 delegates focused on McCain, the Arizona senator coming off a strong victory in Florida, and Romney, the former Massachusetts governor who campaigned here over the weekend.

McCain may have benefited from crossover voting. Steve Greenberg of Grayslake, a registered Democrat, couldn’t decide between the top two candidates on that slate and thought his vote would be more valuable on the Republican side.

“I like both Hillary and Obama,” said Greenberg, 39. “I went with McCain because if the Democrats lost, I’d be more comfortable with him.”

Associated Press writers Dave Carpenter, Ashley Heher, Caryn Rousseau, Jim Suhr, Sophia Tareen and David Mercer contributed to this report.