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LaHood Eyeing Gubernatorial Run in Illinois

Rep. Ray LaHood, who has made a name for himself on Capitol Hill and back home in Illinois with his candor and willingness to publicly criticize fellow Republicans, will announce today he is forming a committee to explore running for governor in 2006.

LaHood is expected to decide by the summer whether he will move forward with a gubernatorial bid, telling a local newspaper that in the next couple of months he will travel the state and “beat the bushes” to determine whether there is enough support for his run.

LaHood’s name has been floated for statewide office before, but his pending announcement came as somewhat of a surprise to state Republican insiders because he had not been considered in the mix for 2006, when all of the state’s constitutional offices are up.

Although this is the first time LaHood has taken a serious step toward running, some Republicans remain skeptical that he will eventually take the plunge.

“It’s not a surprise to see Ray LaHood throw his name out in this fashion,” said one state GOP operative. “However, the real test remains whether he has the ability and desire to wage a real campaign.”

LaHood, 59, has represented the central Illinois 18th district, which includes a portion of Springfield and is based in his home of Peoria, since 1994. During his decade of service in the House he has never been one to shy from the spotlight.

Last cycle, he created headlines by voicing criticism of long-time Rep. Phil Crane (R-Ill.), who eventually lost a tough battle for re-election. LaHood was also one of the first Republicans in the state to call for then-Senate nominee Jack Ryan (R) to exit the race after the release of custody battle papers that contained embarrassing allegations.

But LaHood’s most public feud in recent years has been with former Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Ill.), who chose not to seek a second term in 2004.

In an article published Wednesday in the Peoria Star Journal, LaHood gave little credence to the idea that those incidents might hurt his effort to win broad party support for a gubernatorial bid.

He told the newspaper that he expects state residents will “recognize the leadership role that I play, not only in the state party, but nationally.”

A key player in his decision could be the support he receives from Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), a longtime friend and political ally.

LaHood told the Peoria newspaper that when he informed Hastert that he was looking at running the Speaker told him “he would give me his good luck.”

Other Republicans interested in the race against first-term Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), a former Congressman, include state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, millionaire businessman Ron Gidwitz, former state Sen. Patrick O’Malley and dairy magnate Jim Oberweis.

The state GOP central committee is slated to meet this weekend when it could finalize a decision on who the next Illinois GOP chairman will be. The leading candidate to lead the beleaguered party is wealthy paper company executive Andy McKenna, Jr. McKenna finished fourth in the GOP Senate primary last year. LaHood supported McKenna in that race.

LaHood openly campaigned to become the next chairman of the House Intelligence Committee when the position came open last year. However, Hastert chose the less-senior Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.) instead, and LaHood publicly expressed his disappointment after being passed over for the gavel.

LaHood, who began his Hill career as an aide to former House Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-Ill.), did not indicate that the slight was a factor in his decision to look at the gubernatorial race.

“I like the job I have,” LaHood told the Peoria newspaper. “It’s a good job, but I’ve been encouraged by many people to run. I think the state’s a mess, and people have asked me to take a look at this. That’s the reason I want to do it.”

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