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Out of Chicago, conservatives abound

PEORIA, Ill. -- Staunch conservative Shannon Blackburn remembers the first time she got a rush from politics.

When George H.W. Bush began his campaign against Bill Clinton for the nation's highest office, Blackburn was 6 and sang a song to her mother.

"I don't know where I heard it, but I repeated it once to my mom and she thought it was hilarious -- I heard someone chanting, 'Bush, Bush, he's our man, Clinton goes in the garbage can.' It cracked her up," said Blackburn, 22, who is from Peoria but moved to Chicago to study business. "That was when I first realized I loved politics."

Today, Blackburn will be among voters in 24 states who cast ballots in primaries or caucuses. She plans to vote for John McCain, now that Rudy Giuliani is out of the running for the Republican nomination.

Like her fellow downstaters, Blackburn took some convincing. She comes from contested territory. Blackburn's adopted hometown of Chicago is about as solidly Democratic as can be. In the last presidential primary, more than 94 percent of Chicago voters and 70 percent of suburban Cook County voted Democratic, according to city and county election Web sites.

"Downstate" Illinois voters like Blackburn, in towns and small cities like Peoria, usually vote toward more-traditional values but don't always conform to party lines, and their votes often are up for grabs, said Lance Trover, the Republican Party's state spokesman, who grew up in the downstate hamlet of Vienna.

Many downstate voters favor Mike Huckabee and liked former candidate Fred Thompson, Trover said.

Chicago and its surrounding "collar counties" usually make up about 70 percent of ballots cast in Illinois, a state that went to the Democrats in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, said Ken Menzel, an election specialist for the State Board of Elections.

But if downstate voters turn out in November, they could shift the balance statewide, Trover said.

McCain appeared to be gaining ground. A recent Rasmussen poll placed him in the lead in several states that award delegates on some kind of proportional basis -- Illinois, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Minnesota and Oklahoma. These states offer a total of 337 delegates, and McCain is likely to win at least 40 percent of them, the poll predicted.

At the county committee's annual Lincoln Day Dinner in East Peoria on Saturday night, Giuliani was supposed to make an appearance. Instead, organizers replaced him with Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, co-chair of McCain's national campaign.

Pawlenty was introduced by the party's county chairwoman, Demetra DeMonte, as one of the people on McCain's "short list" for vice president.

DeMonte, who said she favors Mitt Romney, said downstate Republicans are ideologically conservative, regardless of strategy: they're "pro-life, pro-gun, pro-marriage and family -- this is God's country, it really is."

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