Republicans battle in Obama's home state
Republican White House hopefuls set sights Saturday on President Barack Obama's home state of Illinois, as well as Missouri and the territory of Puerto Rico -- key steps in their pitched battle to be the party's standard-bearer.
Polls showed former senator Rick Santorum within striking range of frontrunner Mitt Romney, who has a commanding lead in the all-important delegates count but has been weakened by his failure to clinch the nomination early in the contest.
The fierce GOP campaign came as Obama flew home to Chicago Friday for a lucrative fundraiser with his Democratic Party, sensing a tight election, upping efforts to fill out its reelection campaign warchest.
In Illinois, which votes Tuesday, Santorum took direct aim at Obama in a speech to a suburban Chicago high school, where he drilled into the president's policies.
"You have a president of the United States who does not believe America was a great country until the government took money from you and redistributed it back to others," Santorum said.
"America is great because it was founded great."
Santorum, a devout Catholic and opponent of abortion and gay marriage, is seen as the most conservative Republican candidate vying to take on Obama in November, but his ability to win over centrist and independent voters is doubted.
The former Pennsylvania senator is making an aggressive push in Illinois, adding campaign stops and launching ads attacking Romney for raising taxes while governor of Massachusetts and supporting the Wall Street bailout and government control of health care.
Romney has responded by pouring millions of dollars into local ads and moving up plans to campaign in Illinois -- he has full day Sunday courting voters at stops across the state and a town hall meeting ahead of the vote.
A Santorum victory in Midwestern, industrialized Illinois could prove a far more significant upset than his recent wins in the Deep South states of Alabama and Mississippi, where evangelical voters carry more weight.
It would also give Santorum important momentum going into the primary in Louisiana on March 24 and contests in Wisconsin, Maryland and Washington DC on April 3.
Romney before settling into the Illinois fight dropped into Puerto Rico ahead of its Sunday primary. The small island is being courted by Republican candidates, in part because the large US Hispanic vote is seen as crucial.
Santorum found himself in hot water this week over suggesting the territory would need to make English its official language before it could become the 51st US state.
English and Spanish are currently recognized there, and Romney told reporters in Puerto Rico -- where he held a raucous street rally in San Juan Friday night -- that the island's language status need not be changed in order to seek statehood.
Some Missouri counties were meanwhile holding Republican caucuses Saturday to elect convention delegates.
Santorum won what was largely a beauty contest there last month, but rival Romney has upped his effort, telling Missouri voters they "have a chance to take a step toward changing the direction of our country."
The outcome of the caucuses will not be immediately clear because under local party rules, the delegates were not bound to support specific candidates until later in the process.
Romney's campaign is blasting Santorum as a Washington insider and "economic lightweight" without the ability to defeat Obama or handle the challenges of the presidency.
"The Santorum campaign has been based on hot rhetoric," former New Hampshire governor John Sununu, a Romney supporter, told reporters.
"Good rhetoric without a capacity to perform is just a Republican Obama."
The campaign's new intensity comes at a moment of high volatility in US politics, with Obama's approval rating seesawing, partly influenced by rising gasoline prices.
But the divisive Republican race has been an unexpected boon for Obama and it could continue for weeks if not months to come.
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich has vowed to take the battle all the way to the Republican convention in August, ignoring increasing pressure to drop out and consolidate the conservative vote behind Santorum.
Proportional distribution of delegates will make it difficult for Romney to reach the magic number of 1,144 before May or even June, but many analysts forecast he will be the eventual nominee.