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Thursday, March 4, 2004 02:03 pm

Torpedoed

I'm going to talk about Blair Hull, but I have to tell you a story first.

Nobody thought Terry Link had a chance back in 1996. Link was running for an Illinois Senate seat in a Republican-leaning Lake County district. He was a surefire loser. But Link worked hard, and his Republican opponent wasn't much of a candidate. When Link started closing the gap, Senate Republicans hauled out the big guns and claimed he was a deadbeat dad who hadn't paid child support. Link counterattacked right away. He and his ex-wife held a press conference to denounce the Republican claim as completely untrue. His ex praised Link as a caring, involved, generous father.

The GOP slam backfired. Link's victory was the biggest upset of the year.

OK, on to Blair Hull.

Just last week, Hull was leading his nearest challenger by 10 points in every poll, and his big advertising buy hadn't even kicked in yet. He was starting to look like a winner. Then one poll found that his support had dropped by 10 points in a single day.

You've heard the stories, so you probably know why.

Several years ago, Hull's wife, who is now his ex-wife, took out an order of protection against him. She claimed he hit her shin; he claimed she hit him first. There's no evidence yet that what took place between Hull and his then-wife has ever happened again, but Hull has a really big problem.

When he ran for the state Senate, Terry Link was not a particularly well-known person. After the Republicans attacked, nothing short of an impassioned defense by his ex-wife would have saved his skin. Nobody would have believed him otherwise.

Similarly, Hull is a complete unknown to the vast majority of voters, despite his ubiquitous TV ads. When that ugly bit from his past surfaced last week, we really didn't have any way of evaluating the new information.

Hull hasn't remarried since his last divorce, so he doesn't have a ready-made defender. He was engaged at one time, but that ended with his moving out and her continuing to live in his $2.6 million home.

Reporters generally would rather not write about the private lives of public figures. But sometimes there is no choice, and that moment came after Hull's ex repeatedly refused to defend him. The silence was obvious.

A single statement might have taken Hull off the hook. If she had spoken and her words were strong enough, Hull probably wouldn't have been forced to unseal his divorce records. Instead, when those documents were opened, we discovered that his ex had claimed Hull was "a violent man with an ungovernable temper."

I'm not blaming Hull's ex whatsoever for not coming forward. She has her reasons.

The blame here falls on Hull's shoulders. Hull's staff warned him that this incident would be a big campaign issue. Without the full support of his ex-wife, Hull shouldn't have run in the first place.

After the story broke, he made a bad situation worse by offering up lawyerly explanations about what happened and failed to accept direct responsibility. Telling reporters that his ex-wife was responsible for the delay in unsealing their divorce records didn't help either, particularly after her attorney said it wasn't true.

These sorts of situations have a tendency to deteriorate. More slick TV ads and another bus trip to Canada won't help. Money and gimmicks can't solve this problem.

Terry Link didn't buy advertisements to demonstrate his integrity. He just proved he had it all along. So far, Blair Hull isn't measuring up to that example.

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