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Thursday, March 18, 2004 10:35 pm

The contenders

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Barack Obama and Jack Ryan

From inside his West Washington Street polling place on Tuesday afternoon, Patrick "Tim" Timoney anticipated a long night ahead.

Like the vast majority of party leaders across the state, Sangamon County's Democratic Party chairman had endorsed Illinois Comptroller Dan Hynes for the U.S. Senate.

And, like most of the state's political pundits, Timoney predicted Tuesday's election would be a nail-biter, with a crowded field of seven candidates all vying to represent the Democrats in November.

But by 8 p.m., just an hour after the voting booths closed, Timoney could see from the numbers scrolling across the TV inside Hynes' Springfield campaign office that the night was over even before it began.

In an astonishing landslide victory, state Sen. Barack Obama, D-Chicago, garnered some 54 percent of the statewide vote to win the nomination. While Obama edged out party favorite Hynes by just 200 votes to win Sangamon County, his overwhelming support in Chicago made the downstate vote almost irrelevant.

"I was shocked that Obama won as handedly as he did," Timoney admitted the next morning. "Chicago and Cook County won it for him. It would have been impossible for anyone to overcome his numbers out of Chicago."

Obama, 42, thanked local supporters, including many union workers, at a brief rally at Springfield's Capital Airport on Wednesday, saying, "If I told anybody we would win Sangamon County, they wouldn't have believed it."

Meanwhile, Sangamon County's long-time Republican chairman Irvin Smith picked a winner by endorsing political neophyte Jack Ryan, who cruised to an easy victory over seven other candidates to assume the Republican nomination to the U.S. Senate.

The 44-year-old former investment banker easily triumphed in Sangamon County, and won statewide with 36 percent of the vote. Dairy owner Jim Oberweis placed second with 23 percent, and state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, R-Elgin, followed with 20 percent.

Ryan thanked Sangamon County supporters via satellite at a victory party held downtown at the Hilton Hotel. "Jack said you guys were the first to be for me, so I will thank you all first," Smith recounted.

Voter turnout in Sangamon County proved slightly better than the last presidential primary election, according to Sangamon County Election Office Director Stacey Kern. Roughly 22 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots on Tuesday, said Kern, compared to about 20 percent in the 2000 primary.

Voter turnout statewide has not yet been tallied, according to an Illinois State Board of Elections spokesman.

Even before precinct workers have had the chance to uproot campaign signs and tear down posters, political analysts have already begun to brace themselves for what is expected to be a tumultuous road to November's general election.

Indeed, the last several weeks of the primary got nasty as one-time Democratic frontrunner Blair Hull was pilloried by the press over a restraining order filed against him by his ex-wife. The former investment banker squandered $30 million of his own personal fortune for an abysmal third-place finish -- which, broken down by the Chicago Tribune, amounts to $260 per vote.

Similarly, the media is expected to step up its pressure on Jack Ryan to unseal portions of his divorce records from actress Jeri Ryan. Ryan has thus far refused, insisting the records are under seal to protect the couple's 9-year-old son.

"It's all fair game," said Chicago radio talk show host Cliff Kelly, an Obama supporter, in a phone interview. "Barack's political operatives would be fools not to point out the flaws of their opponent."

But if the candidates rise above the mud-slinging, voters will see a clear choice between two charismatic, Harvard-educated candidates who each lean toward progressive issues despite operating from opposite sides of the political aisle.

A staunch opponent of the war in Iraq who has helped reform the state's death penalty system and expand health insurance for the poor, Obama stands to become the lone African American in the Senate and one of its most liberal.

And unlike Oberweis, who sparked outrage from minority groups for his strong stance against illegal immigration, Ryan has trumpeted ideals of social justice -- promoting school choice and railing against federal corporate welfare -- along with his conservative, pro-Bush policies.

"The real race hasn't even begun yet," says Smith, the local GOP leader. "It's going to be a tough one."

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