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Thursday, July 1, 2004 01:55 pm

Behind the eight ball

A crippled Illinois Republican Party is scrambling to fill the vacancy left by U.S. Senate nominee Jack Ryan after the sudden implosion of his candidacy last week.

While several replacements for Ryan are under consideration, state Rep. Raymond Poe, a Springfield Republican, says party leaders ideally need to coax a self-financed candidate, with widespread name recognition, into running.

With only four months left before the general election, Poe says it will take a pile of money for Republicans to catch Democratic nominee Barack Obama.

"When you're playing catch-up, you have to go on the airwaves earlier," Poe says. "It makes for a more expensive race."

Ryan officially jumped ship on Friday, citing the media firestorm ignited by allegations that he tried to force his ex-wife to have sex with him in public.

A California judge ordered some files unsealed from Jack Ryan's 1999 child custody battle with actress Jeri Ryan in response to a lawsuit by the ChicagoTribune and WLS-TV in Chicago.

The documents exposed allegations that the Republican nominee at least three times took his wife to sex clubs where he tried to convince her to have sex with him in front of strangers.

Ryan, a 44-year-old former investment banker who poured millions of his own fortune into his campaign, initially vowed to weather the storm and stay on the ballot [Todd Spivak, "Ryan's hope," June 24]. But pressure from party leaders, who say Ryan misled them by downplaying the scandalous contents of the divorce files, forced him out.

The 19-member Republican State Central Committee plans to announce a nominee within the next three weeks.

Despite encouragement from party leaders, former Illinois governors James Thompson and Jim Edgar have reportedly shown no interest in running. Other potential candidates are state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, R-Elgin, who finished third in the U.S. Senate primary, and former Illinois State Board of Education Chairman Ronald Gidwitz.

Despite the long odds, Republican leaders say they are determined to challenge Obama vigorously.

"We need to get our act together," says Illinois' Republican National Committeeman Robert Kjellander, a Springfield lobbyist. "We're not all that far behind the eight ball."

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