Ill. Gov. Challenger Seems to Be No Match
SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) _ Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been flooding TV screens with campaign ads. His Republican challenger, state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, doesn’t have that kind of money.
Blagojevich is talking big ideas _ improving education, helping families pay for college, expanding health care. Topinka has been offering small-bore proposals _ a change in the procedure for voting on the state budget and an idea, which she didn’t actually endorse, to reduce gasoline taxes.
The Illinois governor’s race is off to a lopsided start.
Some Republicans fear Topinka is letting Blagojevich control the race. They are not panicking yet, not with the election nearly five months away. Moreover, early polls have shown Topinka trailing by only a few points or even leading. And the Republicans consider Blagojevich highly vulnerable on the question of ethics.
But they say Topinka must start laying out her position on issues that will attract public attention.
``She needs to get out there every day with a lot of fresh ideas,″ said businessman Gary MacDougal, former chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. ``Blagojevich has been defining her already. She’s got to get him on the defensive, even this early.″
Topinka campaign manager Brian McFadden said the emphasis for now is on raising money, building a network of supporters and carrying out other behind-the-scenes chores. ``From the inside, things are as they should be,″ McFadden said.
The Republicans also say headlines about suspected wrongdoing in the Blagojevich administration are helping Topinka with the voters.
``What they do pay attention to are the headlines he makes every day, and they’re not good,″ said MaryAlice Erickson, a member of the GOP State Central Committee.
Blagojevich (pronounced blah-GOY-uh-vitch) came into office four years ago promising to clean things up in state government, after his predecessor, Republican George Ryan, left office under a cloud of suspicion. Ryan was later convicted of graft and is awaiting sentencing.
In recent months, though, Blagojevich himself has been dogged by questions about the awarding of state contracts to campaign donors and suspicions of political hiring in violation of Illinois civil service law. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Nevertheless, Topinka, 62, has been no match for Blagojevich’s money and PR machine and the usual advantages of incumbency.
Blagojevich, 49, amassed a $15 million campaign fund even before the primary election. Neither side will say how much it has raised for the general election, but the Topinka camp knows it is going to be outspent.
In part because of its fundraising disadvantage, the Topinka campaign hasn’t proven particularly nimble at responding to Blagojevich or taking advantage of his miscues.
She has done little to respond to Blagojevich ads that portray her as clueless about how to improve Illinois schools and show her comparing assault weapons to rolling pins and dismissing a minimum-wage increase as a government handout.
When Blagojevich ran an ad accusing her of skipping important meetings, her aides waited until the next day to point out examples of the governor missing meetings himself.
She sent her running mate, Joe Birkett, to go on the attack when it was revealed that Blagojevich had kept a list of job applicants and the politically connected people who recommended them. But Birkett was unable to handle questions about Topinka’s presence on a similar ``favors list″ kept by Ryan’s administration.
When lawmakers passed a new budget _ full of new voter-friendly ideas from Blagojevich _ Topinka did not try to spell out her own spending priorities. Her only comment was that Blagojevich had gotten ``a record-high $55 billion state budget, while refusing to spend one dime on relief for high gas prices.″
In truth, Topinka had no plan for reducing gas prices, either. She had talked previously about suspending some of the sales tax on gas, but never actually endorsed the idea.
Her major budget proposal was a ``seven days of sunshine″ law that would require a weeklong review period between the time a final version of the budget is introduced and the time lawmakers vote on it. The idea earned her several favorable newspaper editorials.
In interviews, several Republican leaders around the state said she seems to be doing a good job of building support and making overtures to the party’s conservatives, who disagree with her on abortion and gay rights. They also said Topinka is smart to focus on the the governor’s troubles.
Still, Sen. Kirk Dillard, the DuPage County Republican chairman, said: ``She’s going to have to start cranking out policy initiatives and papers.″