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Waiting For Edgar

Race for Fitzgerald’s Seat Could Turn on Ex-Governor

Heading into the first weekend after Sen. Peter Fitzgerald’s (R-Ill.) stunning announcement that he will not run for re-election, Republican efforts to recruit a replacement candidate remained on hold Friday pending a decision from former Gov. Jim Edgar (R).

Edgar, a popular two-term governor who left office in 1999, is party leaders’ top choice to succeed Fitzgerald, who said Tuesday he would not run for a second term. Sources said a decision from Edgar could come as soon as this week.

“Really right now everybody’s just wanting to see what former Governor Edgar does,” said Jason Gerwig, a spokesman for the Illinois Republican Party. “We’re just kind of in a standstill right now.”

Gerwig added that Edgar is the top pick of state GOP Chairwoman Judy Baar Topinka, the state treasurer who is among the host of individuals being mentioned as possible candidates if Edgar does not run.

Edgar, 56, is also being heavily recruited by White House officials, as well as National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.). Allen, another former governor, and Edgar served together and have maintained a close relationship dating back to those days.

While most party strategists were mum last week about what, if any, second tier is emerging in case Edgar passes on a Senate run, one knowledgeable Illinois GOP source said that wealthy businessman Andrew McKenna Jr. has signaled he is in the race if the top choice is not.

“McKenna is going to go if Edgar doesn’t,” the source said, adding that he has already begun lining up supporters.

McKenna, the president of Schwartz Paper Co. in Morton Grove, Ill., was being encouraged to mount a primary challenge against Fitzgerald and thus has somewhat of a head start in laying the groundwork for a Senate bid. The paper-company executive would have strong support within the Chicago business community.

Besides McKenna, other potential candidates include former Goldman, Sachs and Co. executive Jack Ryan, former state Attorney General Jim Ryan, former state Sen. Patrick O’Malley, DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling. A self-described long shot, state Sen. Steven Rauschenberger (R) also added his name to the list of potential Senate candidates last week.

Jack Ryan, who is young, wealthy and has an attractive profile, was heavily recruited to challenge Sen. Dick Durbin (D) in 2002 but eventually passed.

Jim Ryan lost badly to now-Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) last year as Democrats virtually swept the statewide elections. Fitzgerald and Topinka are currently the only Republicans in statewide office.

Both men share the same last name but neither is related to scandal-tarred former Gov. George Ryan (R), who left office earlier this year and did not seek re-election because of his unpopularity.

“Frankly, I don’t think anyone with the name Ryan should be on the ballot right now,” quipped one Republican in the state.

For their part, the crowded field of Democrats who had lined up for the chance to take on Fitzgerald took the Senator’s surprise announcement in stride, finding ways to spin the decision as a boon for their candidacies.

A spokeswoman for state Comptroller Dan Hynes argued that with Fitzgerald, and his perceived vulnerability, gone from the race, Hynes will emerge as the strongest general election candidate in the primary. Hynes, who raised $897,000 in six weeks of fundraising, is considered one of the leading Democratic contenders.

“I think no matter who they put up on the other side we’re going to be the strongest opponent,” Hynes spokeswoman Chris Mather said. “There’s no question that we’re going to be the candidate that needs to come out of this primary.”

Among the other Democrats running in the March 2004 primary are state Sen. Barack Obama, millionaire Blair Hull, former Chicago School Board Chairman Gery Chico and Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas.

Hull has vowed to spend up to $40 million on the race and has already lent his campaign a little more than $2 million, according to recent Federal Election Commission reports.

Following the Fitzgerald announcement, Republicans privately began polling a lengthy list of potential candidates who have been mentioned.

Still, they too appear to be bracing for the eventuality of a primary, although the contest will likely be much less bruising if Edgar is in it. Most observers believe that if the former governor runs, he will still likely face a challenge from the ideological right.

“Even if Edgar runs there’s still going to be a primary,” the Illinois Republican said. “So you can imagine when the favorite is out, it’s going to be a free for all.”

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