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Thursday, July 14, 2005 09:01 pm

The best of the rest

Last week I handicapped four of the possible Republican contenders for governor — state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, U.S. Rep Ray LaHood, milk magnate Jim Oberweis, and former state schools superintendent Ron Gidwitz. Here’s a look at other Republicans who want to defeat Gov. Rod Blagojevich:

• State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger — Running a strong third in the U.S. Senate primary last year has not paid off for Rauschenberger, who is in the low single digits in every recent poll.

Rauschenberger is the darling of the “thinking Right,” but the conservative wing is divided at the moment and its numbers simply aren’t large enough in Illinois to accommodate two or more candidates.

Rauschenberger was endorsed by just about every newspaper editorial board in the state during his U.S. Senate race against Jack Ryan and Jim Oberweis last year, helping him overcome a terrible fundraising effort. Rauschenberger claimed in May and then again last week that his campaign committee will report having $800,000 at the end of June. That’s not bad, but doubters out there don’t think the cash is “real.”

Still, Statehouse reporters love Rauschenberger, whom they regard as a budget expert and cherish as a font of colorful quotes about Illinois leaders. He can probably expect lots of positive coverage and will most likely use the media frequently in the coming months to paint himself as a reformer. He also might be able to break out during any upcoming debates. But he first has to get those numbers up to a place where he can begin to compete.

• DuPage County State’s Attorney Joe Birkett — Birkett just barely lost the attorney general’s race in 2002 to Lisa Madigan, the most politically connected person to ever run for that office. You’d think that would make him a strong contender for any office in 2006, but Birkett has burned a lot of bridges.

Birkett is poised to put at least one negative behind him in the coming weeks when he indicts Brian Dugan for the murder of Jeanine Nicarico — which, frankly, he should have done years ago. Dugan confessed to the crime, but Birkett’s office continued to pursue murder charges against an innocent man.

Birkett has yet to overcome the lingering questions about what he is doing in this race. Many suspect that Birkett is running for governor merely to retire the hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt from his 2002 campaign. Others think that he’s waiting for a brokered deal that gives him another shot at the attorney general’s office.

He has tried so far to position himself as a corruption fighter and has taken some of the harshest shots of anyone at Blagojevich. Birkett remains a breakout possibility, particularly because of his base in vote-rich DuPage County. But that tough-guy act of his is beyond old and makes him look arrogant.

• State Sen. Bill Brady — The Bloomington legislator reminds many people of Blagojevich, but in a good way. He is relatively young and fresh in voters’ minds, and he has a burning desire for higher office. Brady is also a nice guy, and people tend to like him.

But Blagojevich did more than just showcase his freshness in 2002. Almost entirely beneath the radar, Blagojevich put together one of the strongest statewide operations ever. Brady’s operation appears tiny in comparison. He says he raised $500,000 in June alone, and that’s a good start. We’ll see how much of that cash came from other people at the end of the month, when candidates file their disclosure statements. He also doesn’t have an organization, which only amplifies the problem of his incredibly low name recognition.

Even with that half-million bucks, Brady needs to do a whole lot more to position himself for contention next year.

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