Sweet Home for Obama: Field of Presidential Candidates in IL Include Favorite Son & Native Daughter

Jan 1, 2008

 

Dan Fisher met Barack Obama only once. It was three years ago, when Obama stopped in Gillespie, a town about 50 miles south of Springfield, during his campaign for the U.S. Senate. As he left the stage, Obama turned to Fisher, who was standing nearby holding an empty beer cup. Their conversation lasted just a few minutes.

Now, Fisher is sold. For the first time in his life, the 56-year-old is campaigning in Iowa. It's at least a four-hour drive to get to the Hawkeye State, but Fisher had gone three times by late October and had planned to return again. He had been trying to get residents there to support Obama in the January 3 Iowa caucuses, the nation's first presidential nominating contest.

When he goes door-to-door in Iowa, Fisher talks about Obama's experience in the Illinois Senate where, for most of Obama's career, Republicans were in control. In an environment like that, you have to reach across the aisle to get anything done, Fisher tells potential caucus-goers there. 

He sports two buttons, the familiar "Obama for President" variety and one from an earlier era. "If I were 21, I'd vote for John F. Kennedy," says the second one. Fisher has spent his whole life walking precincts, first as a kid when his father was the Democratic committeeman and then, for the past 20-plus years, as the captain himself. 

He even won a term as mayor.

 "I'm not one of these kids," Fisher tells Iowa residents, alluding to the flocks of young people who have signed on to Obama's campaign. "He's not a rock star to me. I've been around the block for a long time, and I think I know the goods when I see them. I know when it's real and when it's fake, and you can't fake what he's able to do."

From Iowa forward, Obama is counting on Illinoisans like Fisher to launch him to the presidency. The Land of Lincoln has provided its junior senator with volunteers, money, a political base and the experiences that, Obama says, make him qualified to lead the country. But Obama's not the only presidential hopeful looking for a big boost from Illinois in the primary.

His chief rival for the Democratic nomination — U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York, born in Chicago and raised in the suburb of Park Ridge — isn't conceding Illinois to Obama. And Obama's candidacy indirectly ensured that the Republican presidential race would be one of the most competitive GOP contests here in decades. At this point in the campaign, the GOP race is still fluid. 

That's the setting in Illinois during a year when the presidential primaries promise to be wilder than most, even for contests famous for their upsets. 

The presidential election in 2008 will be the first since 1928 with no incumbent president or vice president running. On top of that, dozens of states, including Illinois, have pushed their primaries earlier, in an attempt to become more relevant in the race. They want their elections held before all the major players drop out.

The result is that more than 20 states will hold nominating contests on February 5, earning it the nickname "Tsunami Tuesday." Among the potential prizes that day are some of the most populous states, which are rich in nomination votes but expensive to advertise in, including California, New Jersey, New York, Tennessee and, of course, Illinois.

The idea to move up Illinois' primary date came from House Speaker Michael Madigan of Chicago, chairman of the state Democratic Party, before Obama even announced his candidacy. Gov. Rod Blagojevich soon jumped on board, saying the move would "give Illinois voters an opportunity to send an early message in support of Sen. Obama and send him to victory."

In fact, Obama's candidacy has been one of the few things to unify the Illinois Democratic Party lately, as Madigan and Blagojevich have attacked each other verbally in the Capitol and in the media.

On the stump, Obama refers to his time in the Illinois legislature. He takes credit for sweeping ethics reforms, for overhauling the state's beleaguered death penalty system and for making health care available to more kids. And he frequently mentions that he worked with Republicans to accomplish those goals.

In running his campaign, he has kept Illinois front and center, too. He kicked off his bid with a speech on the steps of the Old State Capitol in Springfield, invoking Abraham Lincoln on a frigid February morning. His campaign is based in downtown Chicago, and many of his top advisers have deep roots in the area.

Not surprising, Obama has held far more campaign events here than any other candidate. The Washington Post recorded 82 visits by presidential candidates to Illinois by mid-October, placing it near the top of the list of states where candidates stopped. Obama accounted for 22 of those events. Clinton, with the second-most Illinois visits, accounted for 11.

Illinoisans, in turn, have thrown their weight behind Obama's effort in the early going. When Obama filed his nominating petitions to get on the Illinois ballot, he produced 55,000 signatures to Clinton's 15,000. 

He tripled the campaign donations from Illinoisans that Clinton had through September, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Obama raised $9 million to Clinton's $2.8 million. No other candidate — Democrat or Republican — broke the $1 million threshold. 

"We're not taking anything for granted in this state, but we have built a significant base of support here with over 20,000 volunteers in this state who have signed up to help out, to contact their friends and neighbors and also to help out in the early states to boost our organizational support in those locations," says Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt.

Still, it's tough to discount Clinton's strength.

An October poll of Illinois voters by Illinois Wesleyan University showed 36 percent supported Obama compared to 26 percent who backed Clinton. Obama's lead was even narrower among self-identified Democrats, although the numbers for the smaller group are far less reliable.

Tari Renner, the Illinois Wesleyan professor who oversaw the poll, says he was surprised at how close Clinton was to Obama. He says the numbers may underestimate Obama's strength with black voters here because black voters tend to decide on a candidate later in the campaign.

But he says Clinton's rising popularity nationally at the time could explain her strong showing in the poll. 

J.B. Pritzker, a Chicago investment banker and a top Clinton supporter, says Clinton is getting stronger in Illinois as the campaign continues. He likens the situation to her standing in North Carolina, home of former U.S. Sen. John Edwards, another Democratic candidate. Despite an early "headwind" against her, Clinton has now caught up with Edwards in the polls there, Pritzker says.

"Just as it is with the voters, the same is true with fund-raising. Of the 35 earliest primary states, she's winning in the polls in 34. In Illinois she's behind — but not by much," he says. Obama, Clinton and Edwards (who did not have a formal Illinois campaign in mid-November) each makes the case he or she is the most able to bring peace to Iraq and the Middle East. 

Obama says his continued opposition to the war — announced days before the U.S. Senate voted to authorize military action in Iraq — shows his good judgment in foreign policy. Clinton, who supported the 2002 measure, says the time she spent in the White House as First Lady gives her the know-how to deal with the situation. Edwards, who called his vote in favor of the resolution a mistake, has ratcheted up the pressure on his fellow Democrats to back an immediate withdrawal of American troops from Iraq.

While the war remains the dominant issue, each of the top contenders is trying to attract supporters by selling their vision for the country.

Obama says he wants to "turn the page" from divisive politics that have plagued Washington in the Bush and Clinton presidencies. Clinton has reminded voters of the successes of her husband's presidency in health care and the economy. Edwards' populist message promotes greater influence for the working-class and less for large corporations.

In the Illinois primary — unlike the general election — coming in a strong second still counts for something.

The real contest in the Illinois Demo-cratic primary is for 100 delegates to the national convention in Denver, Colo., elected by congressional district. The party doesn't hand all of a state's delegates to the candidate who carries the state. Instead, lower-tier candidates (who get more than 15 percent statewide) can pick up delegates, too, depending on how well they do in each district.

That means Clinton can still cut into Obama's home-state advantage with a strong second-place showing. If Obama and Clinton split a 10-delegate district on a 60-40 tally, Obama would get six delegates and Clinton would get four.

Illinois Republicans also divvy up their delegates by congressional district, but voters pick the delegates directly. They can mark which presidential contender they support, but those results aren't binding. The question that matters is whom they select as delegates to the convention in Minneapolis in September.

The GOP contest in Illinois has received considerably less attention than the Democratic race, but Republicans are optimistic that a spirited competition could reinvigorate the state Republican Party.

"It's creating some interest in Illinois that we really haven't seen in a while," says House Minority Leader Tom Cross, an Oswego Republican, who's leading the Illinois campaign for former New 

York Mayor Rudy Giuliani. In June, Giuliani hired several staff members to focus on Illinois, something not even Clinton has done.

Part of the reason GOP troops are so excited is because of Illinois' early primary date, designed to help Obama secure the Democratic nomination. The Republican race nationally has been far more fluid than it has been for Democrats, raising the possibility that it won't be settled by February 5.

The wide-open contest means more Republicans are getting involved with grassroots organization, as they pass petitions and try to convince neighbors to support a particular candidate. That builds positive energy and organization that's been lacking in the Illinois GOP ever since scandal tarnished Gov. George Ryan in the late 1990s, several Republicans say.

Art Hanlon, the chief political consultant for the state Senate Republicans, says the GOP presidential campaigns may start to air TV commercials and bring in their candidates because they figure Illinois' 57 Republican delegates are in play. 

Like many other Illinois Republicans, Hanlon says a GOP nominee could win Illinois in November if Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee. 

He also says any boost the party gets from the presidential race could be valuable for legislative races in 2010, when putting a Republican majority in the General Assembly would give the GOP a chance to draw the new legislative districts in 2011.

State Sen. Bill Brady, a Bloomington Republican in charge of former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson's Illinois efforts, notes that hundreds of potential Republican delegates and alternates will appear on the ballot because so many GOP candidates plan to field full slates.

Plus, Brady says, the competition among Republican camps is far less personal this year than it has been during statewide GOP contests in the last three election cycles. No Illinoisans are on the Republican ticket (although Thompson's wife is from Naperville), which, Brady says, makes it easier for the factions to remain friendlier with each other.

The prospect of rebuilding the Illinois Republican Party is one reason state Sen. Dan Rutherford, a Chenoa Republican, says he's serving as former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's Illinois chairman.

During a one-on-one meeting with Romney in Boston, Rutherford says he asked Romney a blunt question: How could the former GOP governor of a heavily Democratic state help revitalize Illinois' beleaguered Republican Party?

"I need your help, governor," Rutherford recalls saying. "If I'm going to commit my effort and my resources in Illinois, I need you to commit to me [that] you'll be here to help me. Come in and help." 

Rutherford credits Romney for following through by visiting Illinois often and sending family members to build support.

On one September swing through the state, Romney stopped in central Illinois, a region all but forgotten by presidential candidates since Obama's February announcement in Springfield (U.S. Sen. John McCain of Arizona did visit Peoria, too). 

Romney held a fundraiser and met supporters in Champaign and then met with business leaders in Chicago.

While in the city, Romney tried to take advantage of his experience rescuing the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics by vowing to work harder than any other candidate to make sure Chicago won the contest to host the 2016 Summer Games.

Still, Romney hasn't been able to break through the pack of GOP contenders in Illinois, according to the October Wesleyan poll. He's still bunched in with Giuliani, McCain and Thompson.

Rep. Jim Durkin, a Westchester Republican, McCain's point person in Illinois, says support for most of the Republican candidates right now is likely "soft" and could change easily depending on what happens in Iowa, New Hampshire and other early primary states. But McCain supporters are likely to stick with him because they know him from his 2000 presidential bid, Durkin says.

Nationally, the GOP contenders are trying to distinguish themselves as "true conservatives" because so many of them have spotty track records with the right wing of their party.

Giuliani is emphasizing national security, capitalizing on his fame as "America's Mayor" for leading New York City through the painful aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. But Giuliani, a twice-divorced man who famously dressed in drag and kissed real estate mogul Donald Trump, has had a hard time appealing to social conservatives because of his positions in support of abortion rights and gay rights (but not gay marriage). He also touted tough gun control measures when he was New York mayor and credited them for helping reduce the crime rate there.

McCain has been battered by both the right and the left in recent years, tarnishing his image as a maverick that he cultivated during his unsuccessful 2000 presidential bid. The former Navy pilot and Vietnam War prisoner has been one of Bush's biggest backers in the Iraq conflict, to the dismay of Democrats and independents. His positions on immigration and campaign finance reform lowered his stature among Republicans.

Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, highlights running an elite capital fund. But his GOP bona fides are in doubt, too, especially because of stances he took in an unsuccessful 1994 run against U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, when he supported abortion rights, gay rights and affirmative action.

Many hoped Thompson's late entry to the race would give conservative voters a ready alternative and one who, thanks to Thompson's acting career, would appeal to more moderate voters. Still, revelations that Thompson once lobbied on behalf of Planned Parenthood and reminders that he backed McCain's campaign finance reforms dampened excitement for the Tennessean.

According to the Illinois campaigns for all four men, though, Illinois Republicans are looking for a candidate who can win in November more than they're looking for ideological purity. 

Rutherford, the Romney supporter, says electability is going to be the dominant issue among Illinois primary voters. Romney's gaining, he says, because more voters are convinced he can win the White House.

Cross, the Illinois House Republican leader, says Giuliani appeals to moderate, suburban voters and even to conservative Republicans who disagree with the former New York mayor on social issues. Why? "He is the strongest candidate against Hillary." 

 

 

ELECTION 2008 
For more information about the Presidential race see Illinois Issues, December online 2007. 

DEMOCRATS

Illinois delegates elected by district: 
100  
Other Illinois pledged delegates: 
53
Unpledged Illinois delegates: 
32
Total Illinois voting delegates: 
185
Illinois alternates: 
26
U.S. total voting delegates: 
4,206

Hillary Clinton 
Key Illinois supporters: Chicago investment banker J.B. Pritzker, Chicago attorney Joseph Power, Chicago Alderman Danny Solis and state Sen. Martin Sandoval.

"I don't think we've had as prepared a person for the presidency as Hillary Clinton in decades." — J.B. Pritzker 

Barack Obama
Key Illinois supporters: Talk show host Oprah Winfrey, U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin, Comptroller Dan Hynes and Cook County Board Commissioner John Daley.

"He's got that ability to make people do what needs to be done, even though all of the other factors around them tell them, 'Let it go. Don't get involved. Why mess with it?'"
— Dan Fisher 

REPUBLICANS

Delegates elected by district: 
57
Illinois at large delegates chosen by convention: 
10
Illinois "super delegates": 
3
Illinois total delegates: 
70
Illinois alternates:
67
U.S. total delegates: 
2,380

Rudy Giuliani
Key Illinois supporters: Former Govs. Jim Edgar and James Thompson, House Minority Leader Tom Cross, DuPage County State's Attorney Joe Birkett

"He is the strongest candidate against Hillary."  — Tom Cross

John McCain
Key Illinois supporters: State Rep. Jim Durkin of Western Springs, Sen. Minority Leader Frank Watson and U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood

"If the prototypical Republican primary voter is someone who is conservative, who believes in less government, less spending and is fairly conservative on social issues, John McCain of the top tier is the only one who fits that profile."  — Jim Durkin 

Mitt Romney
Key Illinois supporters: Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert and state Sen. Dan Rutherford of Chenoa

"Strong economy, strong military, strong family: That's the consistent message of Mitt Romney nationally. I think the [reason] he's becoming attractive in Illinois is [Illinois voters] are getting to know him."  — Dan Rutherford

Fred Thompson
Key Illinois supporters: U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo and state Sens. Bill Brady of Bloomington, Carole Pankau of Roselle and Dave Syverson of Rockford   

"Among the base of the Republican Party, his common-sense, consistent-conservative agenda and, frankly, his life story … cause people to gravitate toward him."  — Bill Brady

The GOP contest in Illinois has received considerably less attention than the Democratic race, but Republicans are optimistic that a spirited competition could reinvigorate the state Republican Party.

Daniel C. Vock is a Washington, D.C.-based reporter for Stateline.org and a frequent contributor to Illinois Issues. 

Illinois Issues, January 2008