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Thursday, March 24, 2005 04:02 pm

A run for his money

Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka has a new poll that shows her trailing Gov. Rod Blagojevich by just 3 points in a head-to-head matchup.

By just about any test, the numbers are real. I was given access to all of the poll’s results, and the internal numbers tracked with those of several other recent surveys. The poll was conducted by American Viewpoint, a respected Washington, D.C.-based firm. Taken March 6-8, it has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent.

According to the poll, Topinka trails Blagojevich 45 percent to 42 percent. Her greatest weaknesses are with women older than 60, who favor the governor 58-28, and in the Cook County suburbs, which she needs to win but where she trails the governor 55-34. Except for Chicago, Topinka leads Blagojevich in every other region of the state.

Most surprising, perhaps, are the governor’s generic “re-elect” numbers. When asked whether Blagojevich has “performed his job as governor well enough to deserve re-election,” just 40 percent said he did. And of those, a mere 18 percent said he “definitely” deserved another term. Of the whopping 47 percent who said that “it’s time to give a new person a chance,” a high 31 percent said it was “definitely” time for a new face.

Incumbents have come back from worse numbers. President Ronald Reagan’s midterm polls were so bad in 1983 that there was talk of nominating a different Republican in 1984. But these new results aren’t good by any stretch of the imagination.

The governor campaigned for a year and a half, spent $24 million, and has spent the past two years issuing one press release after another, but people have yet to really warm up to him. Only 14 percent said they “strongly approve” of his job performance, and 33 percent indicated that they “somewhat approve.” That’s weaker than President George W. Bush’s approval results, even though Bush lost Illinois to John Kerry.

According to the poll, 45 percent of respondents disapprove of the governor’s job performance, with 23 percent strongly disapproving and 22 percent somewhat disapproving. That’s a bit better than Bush’s disapproval (48 percent), but not by much. In southern Illinois, 61 percent said they disapprove of the way Blagojevich does his job.

Only 40 percent of the state’s voters said they believe that Illinois is heading in the right direction; 48 percent said the state is on the wrong track. That kind of number is never good news for an incumbent, but, remember, it’s still early in the game and the governor has a gigantic campaign war chest.

The governor is expected to spend as much as $25 million on his re-election campaign next year. That money will give him ample opportunity to run a Reagan-style “morning in America” media blitz that constantly reminds voters that he kept his promise not to raise general taxes.

The poll didn’t find a definitive “knockout punch” against Blagojevich. Forty-four percent said they’d be less likely to vote for the governor after being told of his latest fundraising scandals. Forty-one percent said they’d be less likely to vote for him when informed that four separate investigations into alleged ethical misconduct by members of his administration are being conducted. The same number, 41 percent, said they’d be less likely to vote for him because fellow Democrats such as Comptroller Dan Hynes and Secretary of State Jesse White question his ability to govern and say he’s not a man of his word.

None of those results is considered high enough to make a huge difference in a re-election campaign. But the Republicans believe that Blagojevich is suffering a political death of a thousand cuts. It won’t be individual issues but a totality of problems that could sink his chances.

Democrats note that Topinka won’t be able to run as a “change agent” because of her long tenure in Springfield and her past association with George Ryan, the disgraced former governor. But it’s highly doubtful that Topinka will portray herself as an agent of radical change.

Blagojevich is an overly confrontational, often juvenile governor who can’t talk without a tight script and appears too small for the office. If Topinka runs as the plainspoken, grownup choice, she has a shot at winning. Topinka still has a ways to go, but she is starting from a good position and, next to former Gov. Jim Edgar, she is clearly the strongest Republican to take on Rod Blagojevich in 2006. The party ought to get behind her.

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