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Rothenberg One of the nation's top political analysts, Stuart Rothenberg, dissects politics at the congressional and statewide levels.

Illinois Republicans Want A Shot At Moseley-Braun

Democratic incumbent looks vulnerable in November

By Stuart Rothenberg

Illinois Republicans must survive a bitter intra-party fight to pick their Senate nominee, but whether the winner of the March 17 primary is state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson or state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, incumbent Democrat senator Carol Moseley-Braun faces a difficult re-election fight.

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GOP insiders had hoped that Gov. Jim Edgar (R) would run for the Senate, but Edgar and then Attorney General Jim Ryan (R) also decided against it. That's when the Illinois Republican establishment turned to Didrickson, 56, a former state Assembly member who served in Edgar's cabinet before winning election as state comptroller in 1994.

Didrickson has been endorsed by Edgar, and she features the governor in her television commercials. Didrickson's first ad ended with a cameo by former senator Bob Dole, telling the state comptroller that she was needed in Washington. She has also been endorsed by women's groups, as well as by the chairman of the American Conservative Union.

Didrickson portrays herself as a conservative, particularly on fiscal issues and on the size of government, and refers to primary opponent Fitzgerald as an "ideologue" who is too conservative to beat Moseley-Braun in November. The state comptroller, who is pro-choice on abortion but would vote to ban partial birth abortions, emphasizes her own electability.

Didrickson is frequently asked how she can win a primary against a conservative when Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra, a moderate, lost a primary two years ago to conservative attorney Al Salvi. (Salvi went on to lose the general election to Democrat Dick Durbin). The comptroller responds that she has been much more aggressive than Kustra was and, unlike Kustra, she has already advertised on Chicago television.

Fitzgerald, 37, has been running for months, spending money and constantly reiterating his anti-tax message. His personal wealth is considerable and he is willing to spend millions (almost certainly over $4 million and possibly more than $5 million) to win the GOP nomination, let alone the seat in November.

The state senator, who grew up in the suburban Cook County, lost a race for the state House in 1988. In 1993, he won a state Senate seat, and the next year he took on incumbent GOP Cong. Phil Crane in the GOP primary. Fitzgerald spent $835,000 ($700,000 of it his own) in the race and took about 30 percent of the vote in a three-way race. He might have defeated Crane in a head-to-head primary.

Both Fitzgerald and Didrickson favor restrictions on gun ownership, but the state senator is pro-life and generally portrays himself as more conservative than his primary opponent. His television ads stress that he is the only fiscal conservative in the race and emphasize his anti-tax record and commitment.

Fitzgerald has won endorsements from Cong. Jerry Weller (Ill-11) and Cong. Henry Hyde (Ill-6), as well as state Senate president "Pate" Philips.

Critics say that Fitzgerald is "another Al Salvi," an attempt to paint him as an extremist who can't win in November. But Fitzgerald points out that his views on guns are different from Salvi's and more in line with GOP moderates.

Didrickson is already running a better race than cynics expected, but while she maintains an early lead over Fitzgerald in the polls, she may not be able to withstand the state senator's money and media blitz.

Some observers believe that only Didrickson could threaten Moseley-Braun, but both Republicans have something to offer against the senator. Fitzgerald would present a contrast and motivate conservatives, and his personal wealth would help his bid. Didrickson, a more moderate woman, could neutralize some of Moseley-Braun's appeal to moderates, GOP women and ticket-splitters.

Both the primary and general election should be interesting.

Connecticut's Gov. Rowland faces a test

A year ago, Gov. John Rowland (R) looked headed for an easy re-election. Generally popular and riding a strong state economy, the first-term governor looked like a heavy favorite for re-election against former state comptroller Bill Curry or Bridgeport mayor Joe Ganim. But the entry of Cong. Barbara Kennelly into the gubernatorial sweepstakes changed all that. Kennelly, daughter of former Connecticut Democratic boss John Bailey (who served as Democratic National Committee chairman in the early 1960s), served on the Hartford city council and as Connecticut's secretary of state before winning a special election sending her to Congress to represent the very Democratic city of Hartford. Now completing her eighth full term, she is vice chairman of the Democratic House caucus and an insider on Capitol Hill. Kennelly, whose interest group ratings attest to her liberal bent, shouldn't have any trouble raising money and is automatically a credible challenger to Rowland. While she still may have a primary, possibly from Bridgeport mayor Joe Ganim, she is an overwhelming favorite for the Democratic nomination. Curry dropped out of the contest shortly after the congresswoman entered. Polling suggests a Rowland-Kennelly race will go down to the wire. The governor, a former congressman who knocked off a Democratic incumbent in 1986 and represented the 5th C.D., which included Waterbury, Meridan and Danbury, is regarded as a strong campaigner. He combines fiscal conservatism with a more moderate record on social issues. Four years ago, Rowland was elected with just 36 percent of the vote in a three-way contest. That, as well as some talk by conservatives of running their own general election candidate, adds to the uncertainties of the race. And that has both Republicans and Democrats looking at the Nutmeg State with interest.
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