Video: Ditka won't run

updated 7/15/2004 9:27:16 AM ET 2004-07-15T13:27:16

Former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka said Wednesday he would not run for the U.S. Senate, leaving Illinois Republicans still without a replacement candidate less than four months before the election.

Ditka, who first told Illinois Republican Party leaders of his decision, made his announcement outside his Chicago restaurant.

“I don’t know how I’d do on the Senate floor if I got in a confrontation with someone I didn’t appreciate or maybe didn’t appreciate me,” he said.

Republicans had hoped Ditka would step in to replace Jack Ryan, who dropped out nearly three weeks ago over embarrassing allegations in his divorce papers that he took his wife, “Boston Public” actress Jeri Ryan, to sex clubs before they split up. The party’s top choices have refused to run.

There had been a growing sentiment that Ditka was perhaps the best shot for the Illinois GOP to keep a seat that will be vacated in January when Sen. Peter Fitzgerald retires.

Fitzgerald said Tuesday that Ditka, a 64-year-old Hall of Famer, is “as close as you can get to a hero in Illinois.”

First-string of supporters
A string of Republican leaders had lined up behind Ditka in recent days as a blunt-spoken everyman who could generate quick campaign cash and appeal to crossover votes from Reagan Democrats.

The state's GOP leaders are scrambling to find a replacement with the money and recognition to beat state Sen. Barack Obama, a rising Democratic rising star, with less than four months before the election.

Video: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., previously said he'd tell Ditka he would just be walking onto another gridiron. “I’d say, ‘Mike, you’ve had several bruising experiences in your life. Be prepared for another one,”’ McCain said.

Off the field, Ditka is well known as a conservative Republican. In 2000, he warmed up a crowd for then-candidate George W. Bush by saying the W “stands for women. I believe women want a man for president of the United States.”

Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, thought Ditka would have been a good choice, though he predicted Obama would win no matter who runs against him in November.

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Endorsement deals in balance
Blagojevich noted Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger made the transition from movies to politics, and former sports stars have done the same. “If they can do it, Mike Ditka can do it,” Blagojevich said.

But Ditka, who recently joined ESPN as an NFL analyst, could have lost his endorsement deals if elected. He also has a new clothing line and his restaurant.

Mike Lawrence, interim director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said the GOP’s fascination with Ditka is understandable.

“In some respects, the Republicans are in the position where it looks as if they’re going to have to throw a Hail Mary here,” he said, “and Mike Ditka was an All-Pro end.”

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