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Lots of choices in Illinois Senate race

Not since last fall's California recall has American politics seen a more colorful cast of characters than the group of seven Democrats and eight Republicans who are vying to replace the outgoing Illinoisa Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. NBC's Mark Murray reports.
Seven Democrats and eight Republicans are vying to succeed Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill.APTN file
/ Source: NBC News

Here's something you might not know: The next U.S. senator from Illinois could be a former Las Vegas gambler who's now worth millions. Or it could be law professor who has been likened to Howard Dean. Or a woman who's known, in part, for still twirling her baton in parades. Or an ice cream/dairy baron who claims that illegal immigrants are overrunning the nation. Or an investment banker turned inner-city schoolteacher whose ex-wife stars on FOX's "Boston Public." Or — and this is a little more ordinary — a young Chicago pol who has roots in that city's Democratic machine.

Talk about some interesting choices for Illinois voters.

Indeed, not since last fall's California recall has American politics seen a more colorful cast of characters than the group of seven Democrats and eight Republicans who are vying to replace the outgoing Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. Yet unlike the stripper, porn publisher, comedian, and other characters who ran for California governor last fall, these are serious, well-financed candidates who all have a legitimate chance of winning their party's nomination in the March 16 primary. In Illinois, after all, there is no runoff after the primary, which means that all it might take to win in this crowded field is just 25 to 30 percent.

"It's a very hard thing to call," Stacey Zolt, an Illinois-based Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee aide, said about who might win the Democratic race. "It is so tight, people are talking that it could come down to the weather for that day."

And here's something else you might want to know about this field: Most of these candidates are wealthy, many of them have their own pet issues, and all of them have their own strengths and weaknesses. These strengths and weaknesses, in fact, will likely be on display at upcoming debates. "The voters are going to start to get a clear sense of who these candidates are," said Jason Gerwig, the communications director of the Illinois Republican Party.

The one candidate who has received the most attention — both good and bad — is Democrat Blair Hull, the former Vegas gambler. After leaving the military and studying math and computer science, Hull joined a notorious blackjack card-counting ring in the 1970s, and he took the $25,000 he made from that and founded a trading company. In 1999, Goldman Sachs purchased his company for $531 million.

Hull will spend up to $40 million
Hull has used a large chunk of that money — he says he will spend up to $40 million of it to become senator — to bombard the state with TV ads, which seem to be working. A February 22 Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll showed Hull leading the Democratic pack; a month earlier, he was in fourth place. Hull has also used the issue of health care to appeal to voters: He has made universal health-care coverage a centerpiece of his campaign, and in an effort to underscore high U.S. drug prices, he has also sponsored trips to Canada to help seniors purchase cheap prescription drugs there.

But the news about Hull that is currently dominating Illinois is the revelation that his ex-wife, Brenda Sexton, filed an order of protection against him in 1998. The order was eventually dropped by prosecutors, who determined there was not enough evidence. Yet according to an affidavit, which was just recently made public, Sexton asked for this order, claiming that Hull "will continue to inflict mental, emotional, and physical abuse upon me as he has done in the past."

The affidavit continues: "Blair is a violent man with an ungovernable temper, and the violence has recently been escalating. At this point, I fear for my emotional and physical well-being, as well as that of my daughter." In the affidavit, Sexton also recounted Hull hurling epithets at her and threatening her life.

Hull has said this matter should not be an issue in his Senate bid, and that he and his ex-wife have worked out their differences and are friends.

Nevertheless, the tempest surrounding Hull's campaign has seemed to create an opening for two other Democrats — Dan Hynes and Barack Obama — who placed second and third, respectively, behind Hull in the most recent Tribune/WGN poll. Hynes, the state comptroller, is 35 years old, and if he gets elected to the Senate, he would become the state's youngest U.S. senator in more than 150 years. He's also the son of Thomas Hynes, the former state Senate president and an influential player in Chicago Democratic politics. 

Formidable organization
Consequently, experts say, Hynes has a formidable organization to tap into to help him win. He also has won statewide office twice, and has secured the endorsements from the state AFL-CIO and from over 800 local elected officials. But he has his share of shortcomings, such as his lack of legislative experience and links (because of his father) to Chicago's Democratic machine. But Hynes communications director Chris Mather says the machine label is unfair, because Hynes has good relations with politicians and voters throughout the state, not just in Chicago.

Obama is the candidate who's drawing comparisons to Howard Dean — yet not for his guttural screams. Like Dean, he's an outspoken critic of the Iraq war, he's running as a progressive outsider, and he's secured important endorsements from some key politicians and labor unions. A University of Chicago law professor and member of the state Senate, Obama has also received praise for his smarts and his dynamic speeches. "He's better than Howard Dean," said one close observer of the race who doesn't have ties to any of the candidates. "He is the class of the field."

But like Hull and Hynes, Obama also has his negatives. Perhaps the biggest is his unusual name (pronounced oh-Bah-ma), which sounds very similar to Osama; in fact, a GOP operative reportedly created a Web site (which was later taken down) that morphed pictures of Obama and Osama bin Laden. In addition, Obama has received criticism for voting "present" on state Senate legislation requiring parental notification for minors seeking an abortion, and on another bill banning partial-birth abortion.

Another person in the Democratic race to keep an eye on is Maria Pappas, at the very least for the color she brings to the field. As Cook County treasurer, Pappas is a well-known name to the Chicago area, and she is also viewed as an impressive vote-getter. But she's also apparently an impressive baton twirler, and has twirled her baton at several Chicago parades. "She's just a bundle of energy," said campaign spokesman Jim Allen.

Allen adds that Pappas has been trying to target female voters, and that the controversy surrounding Hull and his ex-wife's affidavit makes that job easier. "We couldn't have timed this better if we wanted to," Allen said.

Rounding out the Democratic field are former Chicago Board of Education president Gery Chico, radio talk-show host Nancy Skinner, and health-care advocate Joyce Washington. Overall, the Tribune/WGN poll — which was released before Hull's ex-wife's affidavit came out — had Hull at 24 percent, Obama at 15 percent, Hynes at 11 percent, Pappas at 9 percent, Chico at 5 percent, and Skinner at 1 percent. The undecided was at a whopping 34 percent, making this race a complete tossup.

On the Republican side, meanwhile, things appear to be a little less wide open, but still very interesting. Sitting atop the polls is Jack Ryan, a wealthy Goldman Sachs investment banker who left his job in 2000 to teach at an all-African American parochial high school in South Side Chicago. Another tidbit about Ryan is that his ex-wife, Jeri Ryan, stars on "Boston Public," and has appeared in other movies and TV shows, like "Star Trek: Voyager."

Not surprisingly, with his teaching background, Ryan has made education his top issue. He also says he supports President Bush's war on terrorism and wants to keep spending and taxes low. "Jack Ryan has a leg up on everybody," said one GOP analyst. "Jack did some good TV [advertising] early. I think he's got a good team."

Name issues
Perhaps Ryan's biggest downsides are his political inexperience and his last name, which he shares with former Illinois Gov. George Ryan, who chose not to run for re-election in 2002 after scandals plagued his administration. A Ryan spokeswoman says, however, that the campaign isn't seeing any confusion from voters, since George Ryan's unfavorable ratings are much higher than Jack Ryan's.

Another compelling figure running in the Republican field is Jim Oberweis, who also made an unsuccessful Senate bid in 2002. Oberweis is a stockbroker, but is better known for the Oberweis dairy and ice cream stores his family owns — something that gives him excellent name identification. In fact, on his official campaign sign, the "I" in Oberweis appears as an ice cream cone. But critics argue that the Oberweis campaign's connection with his dairy business goes a little too far. They charge that the company has launched advertisements that seem intended to promote his candidacy rather than his business.

On the campaign trail, Oberweis has made illegal immigration his signature issue. In one ad he's airing, Oberweis soars above Chicago's Soldier Field in a helicopter, declaring that 10,000 illegal immigrants come into the United States each day, enough to fill Soldier Field each week.

Other notable candidates in the eight-person GOP field include state Sen. Steven Rauschenberger and Andy McKenna, a prominent Chicago businessman whose campaign is being run by a top aide to House Speaker Dennis Hastert. Overall, according to the Tribune/WGN poll, Ryan leads at 30 percent, followed by Oberweis at 12 percent, McKenna at 8 percent, and Rauschenberger at 4. But 43 percent surveyed said they were undecided.

So it's still anyone's guess who will win the Democratic and Republican primaries. But when voters finally make up their minds and choose two of these candidates on March 16, one thing seems pretty clear: They're bound to get a general election match up that's just as interesting and colorful as this primary has been.

Mark Murray is an off-air political reporter for NBC News.