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Hope in the Land o' Lincoln

| Thursday, April 6, 2006

CHICAGO

Illinois' northernmost bit is north of Cape Cod and its southern tip is south of Richmond, Va. Scattered the length of the state, from the Wisconsin to the Kentucky border, are fragments of wreckage from the state party that produced the first Republican president -- who was born in Kentucky and nominated by a Republican Party born in Wisconsin, at Ripon.

In the last four presidential elections, Republican candidates have averaged just 40 percent of the Illinois vote. In 2004, the Republican Senate candidate, a raging resident of Maryland, won just 27 percent of the vote. Judy Topinka, 62, the effervescent three-term state treasurer and Republican gubernatorial nominee against Gov. Rod Blagojevich, thinks she can put Humpty Dumpty together again. Republicans everywhere should hope a new poll is accurate in showing her three points ahead among registered voters.

In California, Republican presidential candidates have not been competitive for three elections. Since 1994, when California Republicans backed an anti-immigrant measure offensive to the Latino population that now is more than one-third of the state's population, Republicans have won an average of just 41 percent of the presidential vote.

In New York, where Republican presidential candidates in the last four elections have averaged just 35 percent, the likely Republican Senate candidate against Hillary Clinton this year has zero political experience and less than zero credibility, having inflated her resume. And if the state party chairman gets his way, the gubernatorial candidate will be a former Yonkers mayor, who as a married man had two children with his unmarried chief of staff, which he says was "ironically" fine because "I didn't have to make an appointment with my chief of staff to go over everything." (He has now married her.)

From Illinois, California and New York, Democrat presidential nominees currently receive, without exertion, 107 electoral votes -- 40 percent of the 270 needed to win the presidency. Can Topinka begin the process of making Republicans competitive for Illinois' 21 votes?

If former Gov. Jim Edgar had sought and won the Republican gubernatorial nomination, he might have been elected: Polls showed him trouncing Blagojevich. In the last 42 years, four Illinois governors -- two from each party -- have been indicted and the trial of one of them, the most recent Republican, George Ryan, on 22 counts of fraud and corruption, has provided an unwelcome -- by Topinka -- background libretto for what already was a daunting year for Republicans almost everywhere.

Edgar, a moderate, was leery of a low-turnout primary dominated by social conservative voters. He endorsed Topinka, who is pro-choice (but favors parental notification and opposes public funding of abortions and late-term abortions). She was nominated with just 38 percent of the vote, but thinks Republican factions will be fused by the heat of their dislike of Blagojevich, who, she says merrily, might be the fifth governor indicted since 1964.

He is, she says, the person referred to as "Public Official A" in one or more of five ongoing investigations by Illinois' Inspector Javert -- Patrick Fitzgerald, the Chicago-based federal prosecutor who also is the pursuer of Scooter Libby. Topinka merrily says "there is no loyalty in (Blagojevich's) administration whatsoever." His "own staff rats him out" and "some of his staff have been wired."

Topinka speaks about her opponent with a Chicago vigor: He is "slick" and "has little weasel eyes." He also has big liberal spending plans for the state (e.g., universal preschool) and for the private sector (a $7.50 minimum wage, $2.35 above the federal minimum). Although Blagojevich, 49, in his clear-sighted youth voted twice for Ronald Reagan, he has become a standard-issue contemporary Democrat whose base is the public employees unions. His creative accounting includes counting as current revenues some savings he forecasts in future pensions.

Topinka's task is to tap into, or perhaps foment, voter anxiety about the suffocation of the state's economy by the state's government. She says Illinois ranks 45th among the states in job creation. Actually since February 2005 it is 38th, which is bad enough. She charges that 15 trucking companies -- "They have assets on wheels" -- have fled the state to escape new fees.

Topinka says Karl Rove urged her to run, hoping to offset in Illinois a probable gubernatorial loss in New York. Would she like President Bush to campaign for her• An aide says, not exactly: "We just want him to raise money." Topinka does not demur as the aide adds: "Late at night." Pause. "In an undisclosed location."

Maybe Illinois Republicans have found their John McCain. Now they will find out whether such "straight talk" works.

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