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Illinois Senate contest has big bucks, big names


SPRINGFIELD, Ill. - Five years ago, Peter Fitzgerald used his personal fortune
to win the Republican U.S. Senate nomination over a better-known candidate who
was backed by the party establishment. Fitzgerald went on to win the general
election.

Now, in the vacuum left by Fitzgerald's decision not to seek re-election next
year, the new crop of candidates in both parties is poised to once again play
out what has become a frequent drama in American politics: Name versus money.

Both parties will choose their Senate nominees in the March 16 primaries, with
the two winners squaring off in November 2004. At last count, nine Republicans
and eleven Democrats had either announced, or planned to announce their
candidacies.

Among them is a handful of current office-holders with governmental experience
and solid political resumes - and another handful who have never held elective
office, but who hold massive personal fortunes and are ready to tap them for
the campaign.

"That's the trend all over the country," said Chris Mooney, political scientist
at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Winning on money alone "is hard
to do in Illinois because the party system here is so strong ... (but) those
rich guys are always the wild card. They're going to spend millions of dollars.
They may do it wisely or they may do it foolishly."

Among Democrats, the "resume" front-runners generally are considered
to be state Comptroller Dan Hynes and state Sen. Barack Obama, both of Chicago.
Other Democrats touting political resumes - and the potential for backing from
mainstream Democratic leaders - include former Chicago School Board president
Gery Chico and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas.

But looming over the Democratic field is the pocketbook of M. Blair Hull, a
millionaire investor who has pledged to spend $40 million of his own money to
win. Campaign records released in July - eight months out from the primary
election - showed Hull had already spent $3.5 million by that point. That was
roughly twice the amount spent at that time by all other candidates in both
parties combined.

The effects of all that money weren't hard to see. Hull was the first candidate
to set up campaign headquarters around the state (including a Belleville office
at the same Main Street location Gov. Rod Blagojevich used last year), and he
began airing television commercials downstate in June, the earliest start ever
for an Illinois U.S. Senate candidate.

"There are a couple of obvious front-runners on name recognition on the
Democratic side," said Don Rose, a Chicago-based political consultant whose
clients have included Harold Washington. "Hull can't buy his way past Hynes,
Obama, Pappas and Chico ... but he may tear down Hynes enough to let Obama get
past him."




The Republican field, meanwhile, includes several millionaire political
novices. Among them is dairy magnate James Oberweis, who spent $1 million of
his personal fortune on his failed 2002 bid for the Senate and has said he is
ready to spend another million or more on this one; and physician-entrepreneur
Chirinjeev Kathuria, who has said he will put $15 million into the race.

Other millionaire-Republicans in the race have been less blunt about their
financial intentions, but would certainly have the ability to self-fund. They
include businessman John Cox, who spent more than a million dollars of his own
money in the last election; investor-turned-inner-city-school teacher Jack
Ryan; and Schwartz Paper Co. CEO Andrew McKenna.

Facing this concentration of wealth is state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, a
veteran lawmaker from Elgin and one of the Senate's top-ranking Republicans.
Rauschenberger, who is expected to formally announce his Senate bid this week,
has raised about $100,000 so far, he said Friday.

"I don't think you have a front-runner on the Republican side," said Mike
Lawrence, an aide to former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar and now associate
director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University at
Carbondale. "What you do have are some candidates who are willing to spend
their personal wealth.

"I think Rauschenberger would be a good general-election candidate," added
Lawrence, "but I don't know if he can raise enough money to get by the
millionaires" in the Republican primary.

Some say things like fund-raising efforts, an elective track record and local
governmental experience should be unofficial prerequisites for U.S. Senate
candidates. Self-funded millionaires who jump from the business world directly
into national politics, some complain, are using their money to get out of
those traditional political tests.

"I'm the only (Republican) candidate ... who has passed a bill or done a
(state) budget," Rauschenberger said in a biographical outline posted on the
Internet. "The other candidates ... are certainly bright people, but they're
kind of bored, second-career people ... who assume the entry level into
politics is the U.S. Senate."

But others point out that those political tests, particularly fund-raising, can
put candidates in compromising positions once they take office.

Self-funded candidates almost invariably point out that they aren't beholden to
special-interest campaign donors in the way that lesser-heeled candidates might
be. As a Hull campaign spokeswoman put it in an interview with the Chicago
Sun-Times earlier this year, self-funding allows a candidate to offer the
voters "a senator who will answer only to them."

Primaries may be lively




The sheer number of candidates, and the availability of big money, suggests the
primary battles in both parties will by lively.

Yet officials of both parties claimed last week not to be nervous that their
candidates may bloody each other so badly in the primaries that they can't
effectively win in the general election (as some believe happened to GOP
gubernatorial candidate Jim Ryan last year).

"Each of these guys is going to make his case as to why he should be the
Republican nominee. And the next day, we'll get together" to support him, said
Jason Gerwig, spokesman for the Illinois Republican Party. "The talk is always,
'How are the Republicans going to handle their primary?' ... Well, it's not
going to be smooth sailing for (the Democrats). Blair Hull is ready to spend
$40 million. That's going to be a contentious primary."

Illinois Democratic Party spokesman Steve Brown acknowledged that "Democratic
primaries can be pretty knock-down, anyway." But he added: "Democrats are
generally better at coming together afterward. You have some diversity, you
have some experience. There will be a healthy debate."

Kevin McDermott covers Illinois government and politics for the
Post-Dispatch from its Springfield, Ill., bureau.


Reporter Kevin McDermott:
E-mail: kmcdermott@post-dispatch.com
Phone: 217-782-4912