CHICAGO – After eight years in office, Illinois Attorney General Jim Ryan is suffering a political identity crisis.
The Republican is trailing in the race for governor after struggling for months to explain to voters that he is JIM Ryan and not scandal-plagued GOP Gov. GEORGE Ryan, who is neither a relative nor an ally.
At the same time, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, a two-term Chicago congressman, has spent millions portraying the Ryans as partners.
Polls show Blagojevich with a strong lead in his quest to become the first Democratic governor since 1977, and his victory could lead a Democratic sweep of state government. It would be a stunning reversal for the Republican Party, which has long balanced the power of Chicago's Democratic politicians by controlling much of state government.
Ryan is striking back with a two-punch combination this week: a pair of TV ads highlighting his health problems and his boxing career, coupled with an attempts to link Blagojevich to the questionable politics of the Chicago Democratic machine.
Media polls taken in the last several weeks show Ryan trailing Blagojevich by double digits. That lead narrows, however, when voters are told that George Ryan and Jim Ryan are different people.
"People know who I am. If I walk in a parade — and I've walked in a million of them — I get a great response,'' Jim Ryan said in a recent interview. "The problem has been in the polling, and the polling is what drives public perception.''
The current governor decided not to seek a second term amid a scandal that began with the trading of driver's licenses for bribes when he oversaw the motor vehicle department as secretary of state. The governor has not been charged, but his campaign fund and former top aides have been indicted on charges of using public resources for political campaigning.
Jim Ryan has tried desperately to distance himself from George Ryan. His first name is much larger than his last on campaign signs, and he asked newspapers to start using first initials in headlines and graphics so that voters will not be confused. He has also called on the governor to explain his role in the scandal or resign.
His latest TV commercial shows the former Golden Gloves winner boxing as a young man and sitting in a wheelchair after treatment for cancer in 1999, without actually mentioning his struggles with the disease.
Now cancer-free, the candidate took the risk of reminding voters of his illness to also remind them that he is the Ryan who has stayed in office despite personal tragedy. In the past decade, he fought cancer, lost his young daughter to a brain tumor and almost lost his wife to heart problems.
Blagojevich credits Ryan with overcoming adversity. But he claims Ryan could have investigated the driver's license scandal and instead ignored it. Ryan says it would have been improper to interfere in a federal investigation.
On Wednesday, Ryan tried to turn the corruption issue around on Blagojevich, asking what he did to earn $83,000 from the city of Chicago in the late 1980s and early '90s. Ryan stopped short of accusing his opponent of ghost-payrolling.
Blagojevich has said he earned his paycheck working part time in the office of Alderman Richard Mell, a powerful Democratic ward boss and Blagojevich's father-in-law.
Ryan has argued that Blagojevich takes political marching orders from Mell, a charge the congressmen denies.
"He's a Chicago Democrat from a Democratic ward — Mell's ward, Mell's organization — in a different package,'' Ryan said. "Same old politics, different package.''
Blagojevich claims the two Ryans are the real package deal, but says one issue does separate them: the death penalty.
George Ryan won international praise for halting executions in Illinois in 2000 following a string of overturned death row cases. Thirteen men have been released from death row and 12 executed since Illinois resumed capital punishment in 1977.
As DuPage County state's attorney, Jim Ryan oversaw multiple prosecutions of one of the freed men, Rolando Cruz. A judge found Cruz innocent after DNA evidence failed to connect him to the rape and beating death of a 10-year-old girl.
Blagojevich says Ryan's "unconscionable prosecution'' kept Cruz in prison for 11 years even after another man confessed to the crime.
Ryan says Blagojevich, a fellow lawyer with little prosecutorial experience, lacks the grasp of the law to understand the complexities of a murder prosecution. He says he is the only candidate with enough experience to lead a state of 12 million people.
Blagojevich dismisses Ryan's experience argument by invoking the name that has dogged his opponent throughout the campaign.
"George Ryan had all the experience you would ever want,'' Blagojevich said. "He also had the most corrupt government you've ever seen.''