Following the tone of their party's leaders in Washington, Democrats who want to replace U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald on Sunday forcefully challenged President Bush's handling of the war in Iraq and its aftermath.
During a freewheeling candidate forum that included six Democrats and three Republicans, Chicago businessman Blair Hull was the first Democrat to go after Bush, calling him a "cowboy president" whose actions make the nation a greater "target to terrorism."
State Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), trying to set himself apart from the crowded March 2004 Democratic primary field, said he was the only person in the race to publicly question the war before it started.
"I'm the only candidate in this race who stood up and opposed it vigorously and vehemently," he told a crowd of about 125 gathered in the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago.
Former Chicago Board of Education president Gery Chico said the war against Iraq has distracted the nation from more important missions.
"We have taken our eye off the ball in searching for Osama bin Laden," he said. "I would like to know the status of where this gentleman is."
Republicans countered that the complaints amount to little more than second-guessing and said Bush's Democratic predecessor had taken similar action.
"Bill Clinton led an effort to go after Osama bin Laden," Chicago businessman John Cox said. "He also got through the Congress a resolution to take Saddam [Hussein] out of power."
The forum, sponsored by the Independent Voters of Illinois-Independent Precinct Organizations, was billed as the first "bipartisan" appearance of the candidates running for Fitzgerald's seat.
The Republican's unexpected decision not to run for a second term led to a scramble among Republicans to try to replace him and intensified efforts by Democrats.
On other issues, Cox said he would continue Fitzgerald's opposition to the expansion of O'Hare Airport, calling it "corruption and cronyism at its worst."
Republican James D. Oberweis defended his company's recent entry into television advertising, which some have suggested is a way to skirt federal election laws by using the namesake boutique milk and ice cream business to help boost his name recognition.
"There's no connection, no issue to discuss," he said, adding that he's wanted to do the commercials for five years and their timing coincides with National Ice Cream Month in July.
After eight weeks of advertising, Oberweis said his company will decide whether to continue the ads later into the summer and fall.
Multimillionaire Hull has already launched Downstate television and radio ads, a move that signals the start of a costly campaign.
Health-care executive Joyce Washington, a Democrat, promoted herself as someone who would bring greater diversity to the Senate.
"No one represents a woman like a woman," she said. "No one represents a person of color like a person of color."
Retired coal miner Vic Roberts of Downstate Taylorville, who carried his mining helmet to the stage, repeatedly questioned the operations of the Federal Reserve Board and presented himself as a Democrat who would fight for the "everyday way of life."
Mayor Matt O'Shea of Downstate Metamora, a Republican who is running as a Democrat, said he will seek to appeal to voters outside the Chicago area who often feel left behind by the state's politicians.
Besides those at the forum, Democrats who have announced or are exploring a run for the seat include state Comptroller Daniel Hynes, Downstate trial lawyer John Simmons and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas.
Other Republicans who did not attend and have announced or are considering bids include Thomas McCracken, chairman of the Regional Transportation Authority, state Sen. Steven Rauschenberger (R-Elgin), Morton Grove businessman Andrew McKenna Jr. and investment broker-turned-schoolteacher Jack Ryan.
When the candidates were asked whether Hynes and Ryan--who were not at the forum--were the front-runners in their respective parties, it triggered denials and suggestions for more candidate forums.
With so many candidates in the field, "this is anybody's game," said Dr. Chirinjeev Kathuria, a Republican candidate and technology entrepreneur.
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