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Thomas Roeser

Rauschenberger's gambit

September 6, 2003

BY THOMAS ROESER

The most qualified candidate of both parties by legislative experience running for the U.S. Senate nomination is a Republican, Steve Rauschenberger, the first freshman and youngest senator to be named chairman of Senate Appropriations back when the GOP was in control. Now the 47-year-old Elgin legislator has taken a daring tack. He has suggested to state Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), whom he regards as the most formidable of the eight major Democratic contenders, that they split from the pack (Rauschenberger faces six Republicans) and debate--just the two of them--Lincoln/Douglas-style, across Illinois.

Obama, an eloquent African American who was president of the Harvard Law Review, is considering it, and if he accepts, the Senate race would be suddenly lifted out of sound bytes and 20-second TV spots. This much is clear: If some day Illinois could be represented in the Senate by both Rauschenberger and Obama, it would come closest to the golden era when brilliant opposites, Everett Dirksen and Paul Douglas, jointly served.

Rauschenberger has critics who want to derail his career, as is normal with one who survived two rough primaries and three spirited elections. To those who suggest that as his party's chief budget negotiator during the George Ryan era, he shares responsibility for Illinois' fiscal woes, he responds that he voted against Illinois FIRST, the spending package that was mainly responsible for deficits. Then there's a drunken driving matter. One opponent sent photocopies of Rauschenberger's DUI conviction to 30,000 households in the senator's district. The one-time 1994 offense for which the senator acknowledged responsibility did not diminish the high regard voters have for him, and he has been easily re-elected twice. A baseless rumor alleges that his Elgin furniture store went bankrupt. Not so. All debts were paid when the business closed. Some social conservatives point to an endorsement by a gay-rights organization during his last run for office. Why, when he opposes gay marriage and domestic partnership legislation? Possibly because of his powerful berth on appropriations. Many have supported him in order to keep this keenly intellectual but folksy budgetary expert serving the state. At this point I should disclose that I, too, gave to two of his state campaigns. I felt his budget expertise was too good to lose because of his relatively modest ability to raise funds. But whether this non-millionaire can make the hurdle to the U.S. Senate nomination--or would be the most electable candidate in the general election--is something else again.

His absorption with issues may disadvantage him with opponents who may have more charisma or who can electrify with bumper-sticker slogans, but he has lately learned to condense his views for the mass market. He would ''seriously take a look'' at a constitutional amendment overturning Roe vs. Wade, the pro-abortion U.S. Supreme Court decision. His Second Amendment support for gun owners' rights includes ''conceal carry'' legislation, where he would carefully require approval by local law enforcement officials for those who take as much training as is given to police officers. ''There are nurses on the South Side of Chicago who are felons under Mayor Daley's view of the world because they have a stun gun to protect themselves going to work,'' he said on my WLS-AM radio show.

As a U.S. senator, Rauschenberger would lobby the White House for fairer trade. The quid pro quo for free trade is that everybody does better when lanes are open, he says, but we are now confronted by ''central governments like China, where they control currency valuation.'' That is not a free market system, he says. ''It's costing good Illinois jobs, and we've had too much of it.''

Called a ''rising star'' by nationally syndicated columnist Robert Novak, can this cerebral yet likable lawmaker with a strong philosophical base make it in a game where personal deep pockets give other candidates a strong head start? If another candidate without millions, Obama, agrees to debate Rauschenberger, together they could jump-start a campaign with national impact, one centered on issues and philosophy.





 
 












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