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Ditka Bows Out?

Tells Radio GM He Won’t Run

The week-long effort to draft Mike Ditka into the Illinois Senate race appeared to be failing Wednesday evening, as reports began to circulate that the former Chicago Bears coach would not run, dealing Republicans in the Land of Lincoln their latest setback.

Ditka told a Champaign, Ill., radio station late Wednesday afternoon that he had decided to forgo the contest because he had too many personal and professional commitments to wage a campaign. He was taping a television interview in Chicago Wednesday evening.

But at a fundraiser for state House Minority Leader Tom Cross (R), there were Ditka U.S. Senate fliers still posted.

Republican in Illinois and Washington, D.C., who had spent much of Wednesday discussing the possibility of having Ditka in the Senate race, were not immediately aware of Ditka’s apparent decision at Roll Call’s press time.

Earlier in the day, the excitement surrounding a potential Ditka run was growing more and more palpable on Capitol Hill. Republican House Members from Illinois called Ditka a “rock star,” and one predicted that his candidacy would boost President Bush’s prospects in a state that is increasingly trending Democratic.

Ditka was the latest ballot replacement hope for Republicans after GOP nominee Jack Ryan ended his bid last month after allegations that he took his then-wife to sex clubs came to light. However, Ryan has not yet filed the necessary papers to remove his name from the ballot.

National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman George Allen (Va.) flew to Chicago on Tuesday night to meet with Ditka and to answer questions about what a campaign would entail.

Over dinner at the Chicago restaurant that bears the coach’s name, Allen discussed the

race with Ditka, his wife and state Republican Party Chairman Judy Baar Topinka, who arranged the meeting, the NRSC chairman told reporters Wednesday.

Allen said Ditka, who would have to terminate numerous contract obligations if he enters the race, had lots of questions.

Ditka led the Bears to a Super Bowl victory in 1986. He was a Hall of Fame tight end on the team in the 1960s.

More recently, he has been a football commentator and the spokesman for a casino and a drug that treats erectile dysfunction. He also has a new men’s clothing line.

Allen indicated that he wasn’t pressuring Ditka to run and that the coach and his family would make the ultimate decision.

“This is a new field for him,” Allen said Wednesday afternoon. “He’s a coach, he’s been in football. He is one who likes to be prepared and make sure he understands the lay of the land. Do his scouting, so to speak. And I thought it would be best to do it face to face.”

A grassroots campaign to draft Ditka into the race has been under way for days, culminating in a Web site devoted to the effort. But GOP leaders didn’t became fully engaged until this week, after Ditka made it known that he was considering the Senate race.

He had said that he would announce a decision by the end of this week.

Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) called Ditka on Tuesday to discuss the race.

The ultimate decision about who will replace Ryan on the ballot rests with the 19-member Illinois GOP Central Committee, although Hastert is viewed as having great sway in the process.

The previous two leading candidates to be considered for the GOP ballot slot dropped their names from consideration last week.

Among those who have expressed interest in the Senate race, if Ditka didn’t run, are former deputy drug czar Andrea Grubb Barthwell and DuPage County GOP Chairman and state Sen. Kirk Dillard, a member of the state Central Committee.

While some have speculated that Ryan could re-enter the race if no other candidate can be found, Rep. Ray Lahood (R-Ill.) quickly shot down that idea.

Lahood, one of the first to call for Ryan to step down when the allegations came to light, said under no circumstances would the House delegation support Ryan remaining on the ballot.

“Not one person in the delegation would support Jack Ryan,” LaHood said. “That was made very clear to him.”

Allen said Wednesday the party’s chances of making a competitive run against state Sen. Barack Obama (D) did not ultimately rest with Ditka.

“We have a lot of good hope in Illinois,” he said. “We are not conceding one square inch of Illinois.”

Whomever the Republicans pick will start out as the heavy underdog against Obama, who won his party’s nod with 53 percent of the vote in March. He raised $4 million in the second quarter of the year.

During a conference call Wednesday to announce that Obama will deliver the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, the state Senator said he would not take any challenger lightly. He also appeared to relish the possibility of facing the legendary Chicago coach.

“I think it would be a fun and exciting battle and I think obviously it will be a lot of fun for you guys in the press,” Obama said.

Mark Preston contributed to this report.