updated 3/17/2004 5:59:19 PM ET 2004-03-17T22:59:19

A state senator will face an investment banker-turned-teacher after each emerged as their parties’ nominee for a U.S. Senate race that could shape the balance of power in Congress.

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“This is going to be a contest of ideas,” state Sen. Barack Obama said Tuesday after rolling up more than 50 percent of the vote in the Democratic primary, crushing six rivals.

The 42-year-old former civil rights lawyer, who could become only the third black U.S. senator in a century, faces Republican Jack Ryan, a 44-year-old millionaire high school teacher who has been dogged by questions about his divorce from actress Jeri Ryan, a star on Fox’s “Boston Public.”

The race for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald is rated as must-win by Democrats who have made it one of four key targets in their drive to capture control of the Senate, now narrowly divided with 51 Republicans, 48 Democrats and one independent who leans Democratic.

Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and American mother, was trailing in the early primary polls but gained ground quickly in recent weeks, scoring with Democratic liberals as well as black voters.

“I think it’s fair to say the conventional wisdom was we could not win,” Obama told cheering supporters after his victory. “We did not have enough money. We did not have enough organization. There was no way that a skinny guy from the South Side with a funny name like Barack Obama could win a statewide race. Sixteen months later we are here.”

Illinois was once a classic swing state but has become much more Democratic in recent years. Ryan said he recognizes it could be a tough race for a Republican, but he said he would go to places that have been voting Democratic and try to win hearts and minds with fresh ideas.

“I think we’re going to ask them to vote Republican just once,” Ryan said.

At a Republican breakfast in Chicago Wednesday, Ryan was asked how he would run against Obama, who will get national attention as a black candidate.

“Well, it’s not new for Illinois,” Ryan said, referring to former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, who is black. “People will look beyond that issue and go with the candidate with the better ideas. The people are smart.”

Ryan’s television ads took satirical aim at high taxes and federal bureaucracy. Obama, by contrast, pointed to his record of enacting state programs to help the needy, especially one that assures health care for children from low-income families.

But Ryan could be hampered by the controversy over his refusal to unseal his divorce files. The Chicago Tribune in an editorial last week urged him to make them public, and a rival candidate, James Oberweis, said he should show them to a respected figure who could then reassure voters about the contents.

Ryan has refused, saying he is keeping the records sealed to protect his 9-year-old son. But political experts say the records could still become public before Election Day.

“If the whole Democratic establishment of the United States can’t crack open that divorce file in the next three months, they should all quit being in politics,” longtime Chicago political strategist Don Rose said. He said the impact of disclosing the papers would “depend on what they found.”

Fitzgerald brushed aside questions on how the issue could play out. “This excessive prying into somebody’s personal or family life can boomerang on someone,” he said.

The primary had been marked by big spending — seven of the 15 candidates were millionaires — and dominated in its closing weeks by talk of drug use and divorce scandals.

With 98 percent of precincts reporting, Ryan led the Republicans with 36 percent, followed by Oberweis with 23 percent and state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger with 20 percent. Obama had 53 percent of the Democratic vote, followed by state Comptroller Dan Hynes with 24 percent.

Early Democratic front-runner Blair Hull, who poured about $29 million of his own money into the campaign, saw his lead plummet after he unsealed divorce records that said he struck his ex-wife and threatened her. He later admitted taking cocaine decades ago, as did Obama. Hull ended up with 11 percent of the vote.

In another race of note, former death row inmate Aaron Patterson was easily defeated in a legislative race by an incumbent state representative in Chicago. Patterson spent 17 years in prison before he was pardoned in January 2003.

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