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Rivals Race to Catch Obama

In the battle for the Illinois Democratic Senate nomination, state Sen. Barack Obama continues to gain momentum, buoyed by a windfall of Chicago support he picked up in the wake of millionaire Blair Hull’s sudden collapse. State Comptroller Dan Hynes’ campaign, meanwhile, is working feverishly to pull away the remainder of former frontrunner Hull’s support downstate in the hopes of remaining competitive with Obama.

With just days to go before voters head to the polls, the negative attacks in the race have so far been limited to direct-mail pieces, although candidates in both parties remain on guard amid speculation that attack ads could hit television airwaves before this weekend.

While Democrats continue to battle for the top spot, Republican investment banker turned teacher Jack Ryan continues to hold a commanding lead over his GOP rivals in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R).

But on both sides the race has largely turned away from issues in the closing days, as the candidates trying to catch Obama and Ryan work to blunt the leaders’ momentum.

After emerging as the clear frontrunner in the race late last week, Obama’s campaign on Wednesday reported raising approximately $815,000 in the 13 days since pre-primary fundraising reports closed on Feb. 25.

“It is a great sign of momentum,” said Obama campaign manager Jim Cauley. “It’s a very good sign for the race that we’re raising money at this clip.”

Cauley said an estimated 2,500 people attended a Chicago rally for Obama on Tuesday night, one week out from the March 16 primary.

In addition to the widely reported $10,000 contribution Obama received from basketball legend Michael Jordan, newly filed 24-hour fundraising reports also show that Obama has received a total of $60,000 from New York billionaire financier George Soros and his family members.

Meanwhile, Hynes has raised about $335,000 in contributions from individuals since Feb. 25. As the race reached crunch time, Hynes also secured a $187,000 loan to his campaign by mortgaging his Chicago home, The Associated Press reported.

Hynes’ devotion of personal resources comes as his campaign works to cement the idea that the race has now evolved into a head-to-head contest between Hynes and Obama.

“I think it’s a two-person race now,” said a strategist working on behalf of Hynes. “It’s going to be a turnout fight.”

From day one, Hynes has staked his campaign on the ability to turn out a huge number of supporters through organized labor and the state’s Democratic organization.

While opponents admit it will be hard to measure the ultimate effectiveness of the Democratic establishment machine, Hynes’ biggest obstacle in the campaign’s closing days may be Hull, whose poll numbers plummeted in the wake of allegations he verbally and physically abused his now ex-wife before the couple divorced in 1998.

After a woman’s group called for Hull to quit the race, he spent the past week trying to rehabilitate his image in the Chicago media market through television and newspaper advertising. He has also claimed that his then-wife’s allegations were financially motivated, as the couple was about to settle their divorce.

Hull’s ex-wife released a statement last week in which she said she stood by the 1998 allegations, asserting, “I will not be victimized again” by Hull.

Still, a spokesman for Hull’s campaign shot down the notion that the candidate, who has poured more than $29 million of his personal fortune into the campaign, is out of the race completely.

“The contention that it’s a two-person race, I would argue with,” said Hull spokesman Jim O’Connor. “Every recent poll has shown this as a three-way race and the Hull campaign is very much in the hunt.”

The divorce story has primarily been carried by the Chicago news media, and strategists indicated that Hull is still pulling crucial support from Hynes downstate, the area that Hull targeted early on in the campaign with television advertising and billboards.

Earlier polling in the race showed Hull and Hynes neck and neck in their support downstate. Sources said that recent polling, conducted after Hull’s divorce became an issue in the race, showed Hull and Hynes still fighting it out for the downstate vote.

Hynes has gotten the endorsements of several key newspapers, including the Daily Southtown, Joliet Herald News, Bloomington Pantagraph and the Moline Dispatch.

Obama, who was earlier endorsed by the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times, this week received endorsements from three downstate newspapers: the Champaign News-Gazette, Peoria Journal Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

While Hull has remained largely out of the public eye in Chicago over the past week and a half, he has instead focused on campaigning at events downstate.

“The divorce story has garnered a disproportionate amount of attention in the Chicago media market, but Hull continues to run extremely strong in the downstate market,” O’Connor said.

In an effort to shore up his downstate support, speculation has swirled about whether Hynes might go negative on Hull downstate.

There is also speculation that Hull may go on the air with negative television ads before this weekend, although it’s not clear whether he would target Obama, Hynes or both.

One strategist said that even if a negative ad war ensues in the campaign’s final days, voters are less likely to be swayed.

“I do think at the end things are taken with a little more skeptical eye,” the strategist said.

Hull, Hynes and Obama were expected to attend last night’s candidate forum, sponsored by WLS-TV and the League of Women Voters. Hull’s last public appearance in Chicago was a week ago, when he addressed the abuse allegations during a debate sponsored by WTTW-TV and the City Club of Chicago.

This week Hull’s campaign dropped two negative mail pieces on Obama, chastising him for a present vote on an abortion issue in the state Legislature and for falsely claiming to be the only Democrat in the Senate race who opposed the war in Iraq.

“No one should play politics with war,” the Hull mailer reads. “Before you choose a Senator, get the facts.”

A spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Chicago Action defended Obama’s votes as strategic in nature. That organization as well as the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council have endorsed all of the Democratic candidates in the Senate race, including both Obama and Hull.

“Blair Hull knows … that Planned Parenthood knows that Obama is pro-choice,” said Tracy Fischman, vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood Chicago Action. “We’ve sent a signal. … And hopefully the voters at the end of the day will understand that Obama is solidly pro-choice.”

Meanwhile, both parties have begun preparations for unity events next week, in an effort to coalesce behind each nominee the day after the primary.

The League of Conservation Voters has also entered the fray, running what the group described as a “six-figure” ad buy on behalf of Obama.

A Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll released earlier this week showed Obama at 33 percent, while Hynes had 19 percent and Hull had 16 percent. The survey had a 4 percent margin of error.

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