If the March 18 Illinois presidential primary were held today, the Land of Lincoln would likely become Carter and Bush- Reagan country. But a lot can happen in five weeks. Political analysts, assessing current Illinois polls and other evidence that gives those candidates the edge, say the intervening primaries and caucuses between now and mid-March could make all the difference.
If Sen. Edward Kennedy fares poorly in New England or drops out of the race, many Illinois Democrats in search of a more exciting contest and more impact per vote could easily cross over and vote Republican. Illinois is a relatively open ballot state.
Similarly, if Ronald Reagan picks up fresh momentum or George Bush loses some of his over the next few weeks, there could well be a spillover effect on Illinois voters.
"Political organization is likely to be much less important than it was in Iowa and may be in New Hampshire," says Jim Nolan, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois Institute for Government and Political Affairs. "Momentum and the media will be much more important by the time the Illinois primary rolls around."
The vote in this populous industrial state, which is not home turf to any of the major contenders, is widely seen as crucial. Kennedy campaign manager Stephen Smith concedes that his candidate must win both the Illinois and the New york presidential primaries to get the democratic nomination. Mr. Bush has said that he must finish among the top two here to keep the momentum he needs.
In addition to a straight presidential preference, or "beauty contest," vote, Illinois voters on primary day will also select a sizable number of delegates -- 152 Democrats and 92 Republicans. Overall interest in the election here is high. More Republicans are running for delegate slots here than at any other time. Record voter turnouts for both parties are expected.
On the Democratic side, both President Carter and Senator Kennedy are running full slates of candidtes in every congressional district -- except for some parts of Chicago.
Although a recent Chicago Sun- Times/WMAQ-TV poll of state voters gives the President a strong 3-to-1 edge over Senator Kennedy in voter support, the Carter forces here are geared for a fight as if their candidate were the underdog.
"It's been a strange year for polls," observes Greg Hinz of the Illinois Carter campaign. "They've bounced around rather crazily, and I think it would be bad policy to assume that they will hold."
In the 1976 presidential primary Mr. Carter had only one paid staff person in Illinois and did little campaigning here. Still, his momentum and visibility from earlier wins netted him the majority of delegates and a clear victory in the preference primary.
This time the Carter camp in Illinois is putting a much stronger emphasis on organization. The paid staff of 40 is being increased to 62 so Carter offices can be opened in each of the state's 24 congressional districts, with manpower left over for field work and central office staff. Vice-President Walter Mondale will be campaigning in the Chicago area this week, and a major fund-raising dinner, which President Carter may well attend, is slated for Springfield by the end of the month.
To win the Illinois primary, political analysts agree, Senator Kennedy would have to make a strong showing in Cook County, which traditionally accounts for about half of the state's Democratic vote. President Carter is expected to fare better in the more conservative southern part of hte state. But the President also numbers nine members of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee among his supporters.
Although Senator Kennedy has the endorsement of Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne, analysts now question whether that may be more of a liability than an asset. At issue is the mayor's controversial governing style and the degree of her control over party regulars. Seasoned political observers here say she will carry, at most, one-fourth of the state's delegates to the Democratic National Convention.
The Kennedy Chicago campaign offices were almost closed in January for lack of funds, and only one of the 16 on the paid staff of the state campaign is still getting a paycheck. The strategy of the Illinois Kennedy campaign appears to be one of waiting out the results of the New England primaries and acting accordingly.
One peculiarity on the Illinois Republican ballot this year makes it tough for voters with a candidate preference to choose delegates with the same leaning. For the first time since the 1968 election, no presidential candidate choice will be listed after the names of delegate candidates. The state Republican Party and Gov. James Thompson, still neutral on his candidate choice, pushed for this "blind primary" ruling.
"The change forces candidates to campaign for the preference primary," concedes Illinois Republican chairman Don W. Adams. "The party is trying to encourage the election of 'unity' slates in every district made up of reasonable Republicans who really care about the party and will work with the whole team."
Republican candidates do not see it that way. They say it puts enormous pressure on them in terms of time and money to make each delegate-candidate link abundantly clear to voters.
"The candidate likely to do the best is the one who blankets every house in the state with brochures saying, 'My delegates are the following,'" observes Lyman Kellstedt, associate professor of political science at the Chicago Circle campus of University of Illinois.
Accordingly, Republican candidates have been courting easily electable big names. Several Illinois managers complain that early maneuvering by the forces of John Connally lopped off many of the better- known Republicans. Among those lined up in support of the former Texas governor, who has been busily campaigning in this state, are insurance executive W. Clement Stone and Cook County GOP chairman J. Robert Barr.
Although Mr. Reagan has more than 20 state legislators and more than one-third of the Republican county chairmen in Illinois behind him, he has traditionally relied on rank-and-file support. As such, he is considered at a particular disadvantage under the blind primary law. State Rep. Don Totten, the Reagan Illinois campaign manager, readily criticises the law and has made it clear that if Reagan forces control the state's GOP delegation, Governor Thompson will not serve as delegation chairman.
Mr. Bush is relying on a strong showing on the presidential preference ballot rather than in the delegate lineup. Only 30 declared Bush candidates are running for delegate slots.
"We'll prove our mettle and worth in the beauty contest," explains bush Illinois campaign manager George Kangas. "Because of the blind primary our objective is to emerge as the clear-cut alternative to Reagan. The only thing we couldn't live with is a Reagan-dominated convention."