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Friday, April 23, 2004 04:30 am

Ready, aim, misfire

Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jack Ryan, left, falters at last week’s press conference in the Capitol building, causing Sen. Larry Bomke later to chide, “He needs to be better prepared.”

Jack Ryan is making good on his promise.

On the night he won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate, the former investment banker vowed to "be on the offensive" against his Democratic rival, state Sen. Barack Obama of Chicago.

True to his word, he's let the mud fly. Since the March 16 primary election, Ryan's campaign office has released a near-daily barrage of attacks, criticizing Obama for missing legislative hearings, taking a vacation, and being "more liberal than John Kerry," the likely Democratic presidential nominee.

Last week, the Ryan campaign issued a press release that claimed Obama "earned a reputation of being to the left of Mao Tse-tung," the Chinese Communist leader who died 28 years ago.

Obama teaches constitutional law at the University of Chicago, which is not considered a leading center of Mao Zedong thought. Asked about the comparison, Obama says the Ryan campaign must be concerned: "It smacks of desperation that one month out of the primary, he's already engaging in name-calling."

Based on Ryan's performance last week, there may be reason for worry. In a series of press conferences on April 15, Ryan got caught providing bad information and annoying at least one key Republican supporter.

In a tour that started in Chicago, touched down in Rockford and Peoria, and ended in Springfield, Ryan called for extending President Bush's recent tax cuts and criticized Obama's push to repeal cuts for people earning more than $300,000 a year.

At the Capitol, where he was flanked by Springfield Republicans Rep. Raymond Poe and Sen. Larry Bomke, Ryan used a pair of charts to make his case.

One chart, covered in tiny, almost unreadable print, purported to list 428 tax and fee increases supported by "Blank Check Barack" Obama during his seven-year tenure in the legislature.

But, as Obama's campaign later pointed out, 146 of the fees and taxes were bundled in a single bill that created the Illinois FIRST infrastructure program in 1999 during the administration of Gov. George Ryan, a Republican. The other 282 fees and taxes were contained in another single bill from last year -- one that Obama opposed.

While Ryan's criticism was aimed at Obama, it was Poe and Bomke who got pinched. Both Republicans also voted for Illinois FIRST. And when Ryan blasted Obama for backing Gov. Rod Blagojevich's $10 billion bonding plan in 2003, Bomke felt the heat. He voted for that, too.

The day after the press conference, Bomke still was smarting. "I don't think it helps Jack Ryan to hammer [Obama] for a vote he took, when the people standing up there with him voted for the same thing," Bomke told Illinois Times. "I told [Ryan's] press people that next time I want to know what he's going to say in advance."

Poe added, sheepishly, "I voted for the Illinois FIRST program; I thought we needed a boost for statewide projects."

Ryan's other chart, which contrasted a recent increase in Illinois state government employment with a drop in manufacturing jobs, also proved a landmine.

The Republican nominee told reporters there were 846,000 state government jobs in Illinois, pointing to the graph to bolster his argument. Later, an aide informed him the chart referred to all government jobs -- not just state jobs, of which there are roughly 60,000.

"I thought it was the number that was up here," said Ryan, confused.

Ryan spokeswoman Kelli Phiel dismissed the candidate's gaffe as "a semantics issue."

But Bomke says Ryan should have checked the accuracy of the charts before going on the attack.

"He needs to be better prepared."

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