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Illinois governor race could come down to who is least unpopular

Monday, October 23, 2006

SPRINGFIELD, Ill -- Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich claims his opponent is tied to the corrupt ways of the past and would take health care away from children and veterans. Republican Judy Baar Topinka says the incumbent runs government for the benefit of his political cronies while driving the state toward bankruptcy.

No wonder voters don't seem to trust either one of them.

Polls show most voters feel Blagojevich has broken his promise to clean up state government. They also show even her fellow Republicans have deep doubts about Topinka.

Those doubts mean this could be the year that a third-party candidate -- in this case, Rich Whitney of the Green Party -- gets 5 percent of the vote and qualifies his party for easy access to the ballot next time.

But Whitney's support remains in the single digits, meaning voters face a choice that most aren't thrilled to make: Blagojevich or Topinka.

Blagojevich, seeking a second term, has tried to make the campaign about two things: his record and George Ryan's.

He has spent millions on TV ads linking Topinka to Ryan, the former Republican governor who was sentenced to more than six years in prison on federal corruption charges. He calls her "Ryan's treasurer" even though she was not part of the Ryan administration. He argues electing her would mean a return to the old ways of doing business.

For her part, Topinka has tried to make the election a referendum on honesty and competence. She argues Blagojevich has given jobs and contracts to his political friends and donors, while mismanaging programs and borrowing so much money that the state is in jeopardy.

Topinka, the three-term state treasurer, has been able to raise little campaign money. That has crippled efforts to get her campaign message out to voters and to capitalize on investigations targeting members of Blagojevich's inner circle.

The Oct. 11 announcement that a Blagojevich friend and fundraiser, Antoin "Tony" Rezko, had been indicted on charges of trying to shake down companies seeking state business was the latest in a series of blows to Blagojevich.

In June, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald said in a letter that he is investigating widespread corruption in hiring by the Blagojevich administration. And in September came the disclosure that Blagojevich took $1,500 from a friend whose wife had recently gotten a state job, thanks in part to the governor's intervention.

Despite the earlier revelations, Blagojevich has maintained a lead of roughly 10 points over Topinka in most polls, and one taken after the Rezko indictment showed a similar margin. Whitney is far behind but consistently above the 5 percent mark.

Blagojevich and Topinka have staked out differing positions on issues other than ethics.

The governor promises not to raise taxes if he's elected to a second term. Topinka says she'll do everything she can to avoid an increase, but she doesn't categorically rule it out.

Both say schools need more money.

Blagojevich proposes selling or leasing the state lottery, saying it could generate $15 billion. The problem is that once that money is gone, it's gone -- and the state would lose the consistent revenue produced by the lottery every year.

Topinka's plan is to open a casino in Chicago and allow expansion at existing casinos around the state. She says it will produce $1.2 billion a year. But past efforts to expand gambling have failed in Springfield as different groups and cities demanded their share.

Topinka says her budget plan would generate enough money to allow a two-year freeze on local property taxes related to education.

She wants to free up money for other government services by using managed care to control growth in the state Medicaid program. She says no one now eligible for medical care would be excluded, but Blagojevich claims Topinka wants to slash care for children, veterans and the poor.

Blagojevich has said little about how he plans to address the state's looming expenses, such as Medicaid and pension payments.

Normally, voters would have several opportunities to see the candidates discussing their proposals face to face, but Blagojevich and Topinka held only one formal debate this fall. Negotiations for further debates collapsed, with each campaign blaming the other.

At the debate, Topinka said she supports enforcing a long-ignored Illinois law requiring that parents be notified before their minor daughters can obtain an abortion. Blagojevich said his lawyers are looking for a way around the law.

The two also disagree on assault weapons. Blagojevich wants them banned in Illinois and has ridiculed Topinka for arguing such a law wouldn't work because the definitions are so vague that even rolling pins could be assault weapons.


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