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Thursday, July 15, 2004 12:16 pm

Da Senator

Ditka considers taking the challenge, and lifts sagging GOP

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Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Barack Obama says he welcomes a possible challenge from former Chicago Bears football coach Mike Ditka in the November election.

"The speculation is fun for everybody," Obama says. "Particularly the press, who I think is bored with the lack of an opponent for me so far."

Ditka, 64, told Chicago-based reporters earlier this week he had already met with several Republican leaders to discuss a possible bid for the U.S. Senate.

"A week ago I had no interest," Ditka told the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday. "I do have a little bit of interest right now."

The erectile dysfunction drug spokesman has managed to arouse a flagging Republican Party still limp over the apparent withdrawal of nominee Jack Ryan.

For three weeks, the state GOP has been scrambling to find a replacement for Ryan, who announced his exit from the race last month after the court-ordered release of his divorce files exposed allegations that he urged his ex-wife to engage in public sex acts.

With less than four months to go before the election, GOP leaders have said their ideal candidate would be independently wealthy and have statewide name recognition.

Ditka, of course, fits both those qualifications. He has known success in sports, marketing, and business.

He is a Pro Football Hall of Fame tight end, a former winning Super Bowl coach, and television football analyst; a spokesman for Levitra and Majestic Star Casino; and he runs a successful Chicago steakhouse and oversees his own line of designer clothes.

While a Ditka candidacy has been rumored for weeks, it did not gain traction until the two top candidates to replace Ryan -- state Sen. Steven Rauschenberger, R-Elgin, and former Illinois State Board of Education chairman Ronald Gidwitz -- withdrew their names from consideration.

Now, the direction of the Republican party seems to hinge on a cigar-chomping former football coach whose red-faced tirades are the stuff of legend.

"Nobody knows what [Ditka's] going to do; we're waiting to see what he decides," says party spokesman Jason Gerwig, adding that a Republican nominee would be chosen by next week.

Ditka, who has described himself as "very conservative," would have to drop several endorsement deals if he decides to run. He likely would also have to step down as a football analyst for ESPN.

As the GOP narrows its search for a candidate, Obama continues to campaign statewide and raise huge sums of cash, collecting a state record $4 million in the last fundraising quarter.

Obama says he would have no problem taking on Ditka, whose team he rooted for during its 1985 championship run.

"I loved that Super Bowl team," says Obama. "That one year was golden."

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