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Edgar’s Exit Leaves GOP Groping in Illinois

With the only potentially field-clearing contender now out of the Illinois Senate race, Republican leaders appear content to let the dust from former Gov. Jim Edgar’s exit settle before reassessing their prospects. An eager group of second-tier candidates, meanwhile, is set to jump in and attempt to fill the void.

Edgar had been the top choice of national and state party leaders to run to replace retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.) and there was no indication this week that GOP officials believed they would be able to find another potential 800-pound gorilla to make the race.

At the same time, at least two people on the long list of would-be candidates kept in a holding pattern by awaiting Edgar’s decision-making process are moving forward with efforts to get campaigns off the ground.

Former Goldman, Sachs & Co. executive Jack Ryan is expected to announce today that he will seek the Republican nomination and Chicago-area businessman Andy McKenna will file papers to run by the week’s end, sources said Tuesday.

In addition to those two, more than a dozen other names have been mentioned as possible candidates to replace Fitzgerald, who had been considered the most vulnerable Republican in the Senate before his surprise retirement announcement during the spring recess.

“From the national party perspective we’re going to work closely with the state party over the next three to four weeks,” a GOP strategist said. “The people who are serious about the race will commit in that time period.”

Although the strategist added that other candidates could still get in the race after that time, the field for the March 2004 primary will likely be set by the end of next month.

“We’ll know a lot more at the end of June as opposed to what we’ll know in the next five or six days,” the strategist added.

After the field begins to take shape, one of the first issues likely to be addressed will be the willingness of some candidates to self-fund the race. Both McKenna and Ryan have personal resources to put toward a bid, although it is not clear how much either might spend.

Among the others considering the race are retired Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling, DuPage County Board Chairman Robert Schillerstrom, former state Sen. and state Rep. Thomas McCracken and state Sens. Dan Cronin and Steve Rauschenberger.

Several unsuccessful candidates from the 2002 cycle also receive mention, including former Attorney General Jim Ryan, former Lt. Gov. Corinne Wood, former State Sen. Patrick O’Malley and former state Rep. Jim Durkin, who lost to Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Millionaire dairy entrepreneur Jim Oberweis and attorney John Cox, who lost to Durkin in last year’s GOP primary, are also viewed as potentially running again.

State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka (R), the only remaining statewide elected Republican aside from Fitzgerald, had also been mentioned as the top candidate behind Edgar but she has indicated repeatedly that she is not interest in running. Topinka, who also serves as state GOP chairwoman, met with Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) on Monday while the two leaders were in Chicago for a large donor event. The function was also attended by McKenna, Oberweis, Jack Ryan and Wood.

Meanwhile, Democrats are gloating over Republicans’ inability to field a candidate so far. In a press release Tuesday, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee called Topinka “the last and best hope for the Illinois GOP” to win an open Senate seat for the first time in 63 years.

“Now the GOP must resort to what is likely to be a crowded field of bench warmers to find a candidate,” the release stated.

However, one strategist in the state held out hope that the potentially crowded primary could be less divisive for the party than last year’s gubernatorial race between Jim Ryan, Wood and O’Malley, which ended up being a debilitating bloodbath.

“There’s the possibility that Republicans will see a spirited primary, but not a divisive primary,” the Illinois Republican strategist said. “I think everybody did learn from last year.”

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