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Thursday, Dec. 9, 2004 03:02 pm

Never-ending story

The dust hasn't even settled yet from the 2004 campaign, and candidates are already lining up for the 2006 race. You and I may be sick of campaign news, but to these people the game is just beginning.

Joe Birkett, the DuPage County state's attorney who narrowly lost the 2002 attorney general's race to Democrat Lisa Madigan, sent a letter to Republican leaders late last month telling them he is looking forward to being on the statewide ticket. Birkett did better than any Republican on the 2002 ticket except Judy Baar Topinka, but he's not saying yet which office he wants. Some believe he wants to run for governor, and he has made noises about that post. Others say he will run again for attorney general.

The Republicans and Democrats have competed in seven statewide races these past two years (not including the presidential contest), and the Republicans have won precisely one -- Topinka's re-election to a third term as state treasurer two years ago.

But that terrible record hasn't deterred several other Republicans from floating their names for statewide office. State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin, who came in third in the Republican U.S. Senate primary last spring, has already said he'd like to run for governor. DuPage County Board Chairman Bob Schillerstrom is aggressively floating his name for statewide office, although he is being cagey about which office he'd like to hold. Former state Sen. Patrick O'Malley, who lost the Republican gubernatorial primary in 2002 to Jim Ryan, is still eyeing a slot on the ticket.

State Sen. Dan Rutherford, R-Chenoa, has worked harder than almost anyone else for the last two years to position himself for a statewide race in the next two years. Rutherford has visited just about every county and played a key role in the state Senate's one victory this fall, upstart Gary Dahl's defeat of 22-year incumbent Sen. Patrick Welch, D-Peru.

Millionaire Ron Gidwitz, a former chairman of the state Board of Education and past CEO of Helene Curtis, is considering a gubernatorial bid and has helped establish himself by forming a statewide pro-education organization and worked closely with business groups in this year's campaign.

Illinois Chamber president and CEO Doug Whitley is also frequently mentioned. He won't rule out a run, but he does at least try to deflect much of the speculation. During a recent interview Whitley said that prospective statewide candidates need to start working hard as soon as possible. "You'll pretty well know who the candidates are by March, and many will start announcing in January," he predicted shortly before the Thanksgiving holiday.

Several more potential Republican candidates are out there, but this is a column, not a book, and we'll eventually get to everyone, including Bloomington state Sen. Bill Brady, who is sending signals about a possible run.

The big question for most Republicans is, what are Topinka's plans? Will she make the move for governor, or will she run for re-election? Insiders say she hasn't yet firmly decided what she will do, but it's believed she wants to run for the top office. The very real probability of her slogging way through a brutal primary only to immediately have to deal with a governor who has a seemingly bottomless pit of campaign cash to draw from is a big impediment, as you might imagine.

If Topinka runs for governor, a stampede of Republicans will file to replace her as treasurer, with Rutherford at the front of the pack.

The Democrats are also watching Topinka's moves these days because if she doesn't run for re-election and takes a shot at the governor's race, they'll have a chance to pick up what will likely be the only vacant seat available in 2006.

Last summer, Secretary of State Jesse White announced that he would run again in 2006 and 2010, so don't expect that job to open up any time soon.

And Comptroller Dan Hynes is telling people that he won't challenge Gov. Rod Blagojevich in the Democratic primary, so that pretty much leaves re-election -- or a Cook County bid.

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