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Thursday, June 24, 2004 05:18 am

Ryan’s hope

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Just three weeks ago in Chicago, Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed U.S. Senate candidate Jack Ryan. Some prominent Republicans now are urging Ryan to quit the race.
Matt Ferguson Photography

Jack Ryan's bid for the U.S. Senate may be toast, as some Republican Party leaders began calling on him to quit the race after the release of his divorce files on Monday.

The documents include allegations from Ryan's ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan, that he took her to sex clubs where he tried to force her to have sex with him in front of strangers.

The Hollywood starlet accused the Republican nominee of insisting she go to "explicit sex clubs" in New York, New Orleans, and Paris, including a "bizarre club with cages, whips and other apparatus hanging from the ceiling."

"[He] wanted me to have sex with him there, with another couple watching," she said during a child custody battle with Ryan in June 2000.

Ryan dismissed the allegations at the time as "ridiculous" and "smut," though he would not say specifically what in her statements were false.

In an interview on Tuesday with Illinois Times, Ryan invoked the Ten Commandments, saying he neither physically abused nor cheated on his wife. He said he was not a sexual pervert, but at times may have "used bad judgment."

"Every married couple has a debate over what's fun for them," he told IT.

For months Ryan fought to keep the documents hidden from public view, insisting that his only motive was to protect their 9-year-old son.

Just last weekend, after a California judge ordered parts of the 1999 divorce records unsealed, Ryan assured political leaders that nothing in the files would embarrass him or the Republican Party.

State Republican chairman Judy Baar Topinka and former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar both said Ryan misled them by downplaying the allegations, according to reports. U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, called on Ryan to step down.

Hours before the papers were released, Edgar defended Ryan during a press conference at the Capitol. Edgar dismissed the controversy as a "soap opera," telling reporters that Ryan admitted what was in the files during a previous phone conversation.

But two days later Edgar told the Chicago Tribune he felt duped. "I didn't think what [Ryan] told me was that much of a story," he told the Tribune, which was one of two media organizations that pressed to open the divorce records. "But there's more to it than what he told me."

When asked about the alleged betrayal, Ryan told IT, "I don't think I misled [Edgar]; I feel badly if he feels that way."

State party leaders appear to be waiting for the smoke to clear before announcing whether they will continue to back Ryan, who has pumped more than $5 million of his own personal fortune into his campaign.

Rumors are swirling that the party may ask Edgar or former governor Jim Thompson to replace the beleaguered candidate.

The political bombshell could have national implications, leading the Bush Administration to withdraw its resources from Illinois to concentrate on contested elections elsewhere.

But Ryan says he will not abandon his bid to replace outgoing Republican U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, pointing to support he has received from some party officials.

If he stays in the contest, Ryan faces what is likely an insurmountable challenge, as a poll released earlier this month showed him a distant 22 points behind Democratic rival Barack Obama.

Obama declined to comment on the divorce controversy surrounding Ryan.

State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, R-Elgin, who came in third in the U.S. Senate primary, said he would consider replacing Ryan on the ballot if asked by party leaders.

"But there's not much likelihood that Jack Ryan will opt not to continue," Rauschenberger says.

Sangamon County Republican Chairman Irv Smith says local party members are split on whether to continue supporting Ryan, and will need more time to decide.

But Smith says he was not surprised by last week's revelations. At about the time of the election primary in March, Smith says he approached Ryan at the Hilton in Springfield to warn him of rumors that were circulating regarding his "kinky sex life."

"How do you describe 'kinky sex'?" Ryan responded, according to Smith.

Smith, 74, says he was later troubled by the exchange.

"He didn't deny anything," Smith says. "But then, nobody's going to 'fess up to the facts that they're ashamed of if they're going to run for office."

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