Campaign '06: On the Attack in Illinois

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Retired politicians frequently return to the campaign trail on behalf of grateful candidates seeking an electoral boost. But former Illinois Governor George Ryan has become the focus of that state's current gubernatorial race in a quite different way. Both Democrat incumbent Governor Rod Blagojevich and GOP challenger Judy Baar Topinka, the three-term state treasurer, are scrambling to show that their opponent most closely resembles the disgraced one-term Republican now facing six and a half years in federal prison for corruption and fraud.

So far the evidence is scant that either politician is benefiting from the tactic, which lately has all but squeezed out meaningful discussion of issues like taxes, education and health care. Instead, in relentless TV ads, Blagojevich and Topinka have tried to impugn the ethical standards of the other by invoking Ryan, the current poster boy of scandal in a state where questionable patronage practices have rarely before been a political liability. Blagojevich uses old footage of Topinka, a former member of the Ryan administration, practically swooning as she praises the former governor as "a damn decent guy." Topinka, who has never been implicated as a participant in Ryan's patronage schemes, counters with references to recent revelations of a $1,500 "birthday gift" to Blagojevich's then seven-year-old daughter from a friend whose wife had just received a state job. "Isn't our last governor going to jail over this?" the announcer ominously wonders.

Perhaps if Blagojevich, the first Illinois Democrat elected governor since 1972, had not so strongly vowed to end "business as usual" four years ago in taking over a bloated, corruption-plagued Republican administration, voters might not be so cynical about the current dialogue. For more than a year, the Governor's disapproval ratings have topped 50%. Federal authorities are currently investigating "endemic hiring fraud" at the state level, alleging that more than 2,000 politically connected job applicants got special treatment by the Blagojevich administration. Illinois recently disclosed a $3 billion budget deficit for fiscal 2005 that was the largest in the nation. (To be fair, Blagojevich, 49, has improved on the $5 billion deficit that Ryan bequeathed to him.) And though the PR-savvy incumbent has bragged about being an "education governor" in announcing initiatives to expand preschool opportunities and toughen academic requirements for high school graduates, Illinois continues to rank near the bottom in state education spending.

Still, the pugnacious Blagojevich, a former Golden Gloves boxer, has a few important advantages. Topinka, 62, currently the only statewide G.O.P. office holder, has a brusque, sometimes cartoonish style that has made her uphill battle even steeper. Though the treasurer, a social moderate, clinched enough votes in March to snatch the nomination in the bloody, five-person circular firing squad otherwise known as the G.O.P. primary, her campaign quickly lost steam. In a September poll of 600 likely voters, Blagojevich led Topinka 45% to 33%. "She just hasn't been able to capitalize on the negatives associated with the governor," said Jay Stewart executive director of the of the Better Government Association, a non-partisan watchdog group based in Chicago.

For most of the summer, Topinka's failure to offer specifics about how she would institute fiscal discipline or deal with unsustainable long-range spending obligations that legislators have agreed to — for everything from Medicaid expenses to public employee pensions — kept her from looking like a serious contender. But in late August she took an important step in announcing a four-year revenue plan that depends on the controversial notion of opening Chicago's first casino to help provide billions of dollars for public schools and property tax relief. Topinka, like Blagojevich, has been averse to raising sales or income taxes to generate revenue, though the challenger insists she wouldn't rule out those measures as a last resort.

The governor's supporters were quick to jump on technical flaws in Topinka's proposal. Blagojevich's own education spending plan involves selling or leasing the state lottery to provide a short-term cash infusion for schools, but no sustainable revenue stream. "It's never been clear that he has any real interest or commitment to policy. He's all about winning the next election," said Charles Wheeler, a political columnist and professor of public affairs reporting at the University of Illinois-Springfield.

Even if Topinka finds her mojo with a Windy City casino, the governor has another big advantage. Over the past few years, Blagojevich has amassed a campaign war chest of more than $20 million. Over the summer, he had $12 million on hand while Topinka reported just $1.5 million in the bank. In a match-up where neither candidate's policy agenda has found much traction, it's hard to bet against the one whose budget for attack ads is virtually limitless.