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Thursday, June 3, 2004 12:21 am

The shrinking governor

In a spectacular reversal of fortune, the Chicago Tribune reported last week that Gov. Rod Blagojevich's job approval rating has dropped to just 40 percent. In February, a Tribune poll had Blagojevich's approval rating at 55 percent.

The numbers add up to some real trouble for the governor.

For over a year, political insiders have marveled at how Blagojevich could maintain relatively high approval ratings despite a complete refusal to engage in even minimal governance. Blagojevich must be another Jim Edgar, many figured. Edgar was a highly unpopular governor in the Statehouse, but he was a huge hit with the public.

The latest polls reflect what many in state government have known for months: Blagojevich's administration is a big disappointment to many Illinoisans.

Critics say the governor has embraced conflict over results by repeatedly attacking the General Assembly and by slamming some of the most popular politicians in the state. They fault him for showing up 20 minutes late at the funeral service for Senate Majority Leader Vince Demuzio and skipping his own prayer breakfast. They say he is way too message-oriented, answering almost every question with carefully thought-out, pre-programmed response.

The Tribune's 40 percent job approval rating is lower than every national job approval number for President George W. Bush, who has more than his share of problems.

The poll couldn't have come at a worse time for Blagojevich. The governor has alienated just about every politician in Springfield because he believes he has the people behind him. He has refused to negotiate in good faith because he is convinced nobody would dare risk political annihilation by rejecting his proposals.

The Tribune poll helped undercut the governor's bargaining position during the crucial final days of the spring legislative session. The newspaper's poll suggested an alliance with Blagojevich is a suicide pact, particularly downstate, where his numbers are incredibly weak.

Blagojevich could discount the numbers as irrelevant, saying he doesn't base his decisions on polls. However, the governor has reported spending an average of about $1,000 a day on polling since the middle of 2002 -- and his spending for this year hasn't been reported yet.

It's an ironic turn for the governor. From the time he first campaigned for the office, Blagojevich's theme has been "the people against the powerful."

The media polls appear to show that "the people" aren't buying it.

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