CHICAGO – In a measure of the Illinois Republican Party's desperation and Chicago's devotion to Da Bears, a movement is afoot to draft the team's brash, tough-talking former coach Mike Ditka (search) to run for the U.S. Senate.
Ditka, a Hall of Famer who led the team to the 1986 Super Bowl and now spends most of his time on TV as a football analyst and pitchman for a casino and an impotence drug, has said it is an exciting idea, but he has not made up his mind.
"I've talked to some people but that's about all I've done," Ditka said Tuesday night at his Chicago restaurant.
What started out almost as a lark has become a real possibility to the Illinois Republican Party (search), which has been unable to find anyone of stature who wants the Senate nomination.
The GOP is still without a candidate nearly three weeks after Jack Ryan (search) dropped out over embarrassing allegations in his divorce papers that he took his wife, "Boston Public" actress Jeri Ryan (search), to sex clubs before they split up.
The party's top choices have refused to run, leaving GOP leaders scrambling to find a replacement with the money and recognition to beat state Sen. Barack Obama (search), a Democratic rising star, with less than four months to go before the election.
Ditka is "the ideal candidate," said state Sen. Dave Syverson, a member of the Republican State Central Committee that will choose the new Senate nominee.
"The public is really tired of the slick politicians. They're tired of sound bites. They're tired of trial lawyers running government," he said. "The fact that he's blunt and honest and represents ordinary people, I think he could shake up the dinosaurs in Washington."
Even some federal officeholders say they'd welcome a Ditka candidacy.
"I'd love to see him on the floor of the United States Senate," said GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, whose retirement is creating the open seat. "The question I would have is would he want to give up the wonderful life he enjoys now to take on the chores of being a public servant and having 12.6 million bosses."
Ditka would just be walking onto another gridiron, said Sen. John McCain (search), R-Ariz.
"I'd say, `Mike, you've had several bruising experiences in your life. Be prepared for another one,"' McCain said.
Ditka has raised his profile as a conservative Republican since his years with the Da Bears, the nickname for the team drawn from the local patois and memorialized in a "Saturday Night Live" sketch.
In 2000, he warmed up a crowd for then-candidate George W. Bush (search) by saying the W "stands for women. I believe women want a man for president of the United States."
If he ran for Senate, Ditka could energize the Republican base as well as independent voters, and possibly put Illinois back into play for Bush, Fitzgerald said.
Ditka, 64, has said a potential run is very much on his mind, even though his wife, Diana, has been telling the media not to bet on it.
Ditka said Tuesday the choice was his: "I'll make the final decision."
Ditka met with the state GOP chairwoman Monday to discuss a possible candidacy, party spokesman Jason Gerwig said.
Thousands of fans have weighed on the www.draftditka.com Web site -- created to urge Ditka to become the state's GOP chairman but transformed into a Ditka-for-Senate movement.
Even Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, thinks Ditka would be a good choice, though he predicted Obama will win no matter who runs against him in November.
Blagojevich noted Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger (search) made the transition from movies to politics, and former sports stars have done the same. "If they can do it, Mike Ditka can do it," Blagojevich said.
But Ditka, who recently joined ESPN as an NFL analyst, could lose his endorsement deals if elected. He also has a new clothing line and his restaurant. He said he plans to decide on a Senate run by the end of the week.
Mike Lawrence, interim director of the Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said the GOP's fascination with Ditka is understandable.
"In some respects, the Republicans are in the position where it looks as if they're going to have to throw a Hail Mary here," he said, "and Mike Ditka was an All-Pro end."