CHICAGO – In a "Hail Mary" pass by the state GOP, the party chairwoman met with former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka (search) about a possible run for the U.S. Senate.
Illinois Republicans are scrambling to find a replacement candidate with less than four months left until the November election.
Jack Ryan (search) dropped out nearly three weeks ago 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.
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."
A number of Republican leaders in both Illinois and Washington said Tuesday that Ditka's name recognition, regular-guy appeal and analytical game-planning skills would make him a viable candidate to challenge state Sen. Barack Obama (search), a Democratic rising star.
"The public is really tired of the slick politicians, they're tired of sound bites, they're tired of trial lawyers running government. To have a decent, ordinary guy, a regular guy, run, I think is something that the public would overwhelmingly embrace," said state Sen. Dave Syverson, a member of the Republican State Central Committee.
Ditka, 64, said he had not decided on a run after meeting Tuesday night with Illinois Republican Party chairwoman and state treasurer Judy Baar Topinka at his Chicago restaurant.
He 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 earlier Tuesday.
The Hall of Famer led the Bears 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 anti-impotence drug.
Off the field, Ditka is well known as a conservative Republican. In 2000, he warmed up a crowd for then-candidate George W. Bush 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, said U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, whose retirement opened the seat.
If Ditka entered the race, Fitzgerald said, "the Republicans would have a real chance of winning."
Thousands of fans have weighed in on the www.draftditka.com Web site — created to urge Ditka to become the state's GOP chairman but transformed into a Ditka for U.S. Senate movement.
Even Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, thinks Ditka would be a good choice, though he thinks Obama will win. He noted actors Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger made the transition to politics and former sports stars had done the same.
"If they can do it, Mike Ditka can do it," Blagojevich said.
But Ditka is not a shoo-in. State Sen. Kirk Dillard, a central committee member, said Ditka would have to go through a vetting process before he would sign on to his candidacy.
And 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 to consider.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Ditka would just be walking onto another gridiron.
"I'd say, `Mike, you've had several bruising experiences in your life. Be prepared for another one,"' McCain said.