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Steve Neal, Chicago Sun Times: Obama could add drama to Senate race

Posted on Aug 11, 2002

He could win it all. State Sen. Barack Obama (D-Chicago), the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, who teaches constitutional law at the University of Chicago, is hoping to be the 2004 Democratic nominee against Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

Earlier this week, Obama launched a campaign committee to challenge Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald in 2004.

Obama, 40, a six-year member of the Illinois Senate, is certain to be re-elected in November to a four-year term. In running against Fitzgerald in '04, Obama will be at midterm and won't have to give up his current office.

Fitzgerald, 41, who is regarded as among the more vulnerable Republican senators, would have trouble with Obama.

The contrast in their records could hardly be more stark. Fitzgerald is better at posturing than getting things done. He has passed no legislation of consequence and has grabbed a lot of headlines with his opposition to the expansion of O'Hare airport.

Unlike Fitzgerald, Obama has built a record of considerable accomplishment. He took the lead in passing legislation that reduced income taxes on the middle class and was the lead Democratic sponsor of a 1998 law that reformed campaign finances in this state. Obama also has worked to pass welfare reform legislation and is the lead sponsor of an amendment that would make affordable health care accessible to all Illinois residents.

Fitzgerald, who spent $14 million of his personal fortune in his 1998 campaign, is nervous in crowds and avoided human contact as much as possible in his '98 campaign. Obama, who spent five years as a community organizer in low-income neighborhoods, is a skillful builder of coalitions. A decade ago, Obama served as the executive director of a grassroots campaign that added more than 100,000 new voters to the rolls.

Obama recently commissioned a statewide poll by the Boulder, Colo., firm of Harstad Strategic Research, whose clients include Democratic Senators Tom Harkin of Iowa and Jack Reed of Rhode Island.

The poll showed that former Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun (D-Ill.) would be the clear front-runner for the Democratic nomination if she seeks an '04 rematch with Fitzgerald. Obama has said that he would be less inclined to run if Moseley-Braun does.

But Obama hopes he gets the chance to run against Fitzgerald. Even though Fitzgerald is held to just half of the vote in trial heats against Moseley-Braun and Obama, the lesser-known Obama may have more potential for growth. He is known to only 18 percent of general election voters, compared with 92 percent who are familiar with Moseley-Braun.

If Moseley-Braun takes a pass on the '04 race, Obama could win the primary. In a trial heat, when poll respondents were given brief descriptions of several Democratic contenders, Obama was favored by 31 percent, followed by Rep. Janice Schakowsky with 23 percent, former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico with 20 percent, and investment banker Blair Hull with 4 percent. Obama was the second choice of another 19 percent of Democratic primary voters, according to the poll.

In another trial heat, Obama trailed Moseley-Braun, state Comptroller Dan Hynes, and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas but led Chico. When Moseley-Braun was left out of another trial heat, Obama picked up much of her support. The former senator could well determine whether Obama makes this race.

The potential is there. After voters learned more about Obama, he led Fitzgerald 50 percent to 31 percent in a general election trial heat. He led Fitzgerald among whites by 50 percent to 31 percent.
Near the end of the survey, general election voters were asked to rate Fitzgerald against generic Democratic candidates on several issues.

Illinois voters would favor a Democrat who favors O'Hare expansion by 40 percent to 31 percent.
By more than 2 to 1, Illinois voters would favor a pro-choice Democrat.

By 3 to 1, the poll's respondents favored a Democrat who favors affordable health care over Fitzgerald. By almost this same ratio, the poll's respondents favored a Democrat who favored middle-class tax cuts.

Illinois voters are responsive to African-American candidates. Since 1976, blacks have won six out of nine statewide elections. For Obama, the hard part could be getting out of the Democratic primary. If Obama survives this test, Fitzgerald shouldn't sign any long-term leases.

Questions or Comments? info@obamaforillinois.com

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