CHICAGO – Four weeks after millionaire Jack Ryan (search) dropped his U.S. Senate bid amid embarrassing sex club allegations, the Republican Party is back to square one in its search for a replacement. Again.
"It's a sad comment on the Illinois Republican Party that arguably no one who is sane is willing to even accept the nomination," retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (search) said Thursday. He, too, has made it clear he has no intention of running again.
Dillard's case is symbolic of what the party has gone through in trying to recruit a viable candidate to take on Barack Obama (search), a well-funded Democratic rising star.
In most cases, the potential contenders were urged on by party leaders, or in Ditka's case, a grassroots effort. Their names surfaced as the candidate du jour, the media spotlight zeroed in, and the contenders, looking at that spotlight focused so brightly on their lives and weighing their chances of beating Obama with less than four months to raise money and campaign, found reasons to decline.
"I vote to be a dad, not a U.S. senator," Dillard said Thursday from his home in Hinsdale, where he and his wife are raising two young daughters, ages 3 and 10 months.
Ditka, after three days in the spotlight, said: "There was a moment when I said, God, I'd like to take this and run with it, and then I said, you know, put your head on straight and think about what you're getting into."
Dillard had been recruited by former Gov. Jim Edgar, whom he had worked for as chief of staff in the 1990s.
U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert had earlier pointed to State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger, the third place primary finisher, as the best choice, but two hours after Hastert spoke out, the Elgin lawmaker publicly declined.
Rauschenberger's name is still coming up two weeks later. U.S. Rep. Donald Manzullo, when asked Thursday who the candidate should be now that Dillard was out, said Rauschenberger should reconsider. Hastert has declined to weigh in since Rauschenberger stepped out.
State party Chairwoman Judy Baar Topinka has kept a low public profile as the situation has played out. Her spokesman didn't return calls for comment Thursday.
"She's in a humiliating situation," said Don Rose, a Chicago political consultant who has worked for candidates from both parties. "The worse it gets, the worse it keeps getting."
He called the situation a "comic opera."
Illinois has moved solidly Democratic in recent years with no sign of that changing in the forseeable future, and Obama is too appealing a candidate for any Republican to beat, Rose said. "He won a multi-candidate primary race with an absolute majority — not even Paul Simon did that," he said.
About 30 people initially expressed interest in replacing Ryan as the Republican candidate, and party advisers have been reviewing their credentials.
But the party can't name a replacement until Ryan files paperwork to remove his name from the ballot — something had yet to do Thursday afternoon, though he has repeatedly said he sees no scenario in which he would stay in the race.
The second-place finisher to Ryan in primary, businessman Jim Oberweis, said in Thursday's Chicago Sun-Times that he was still interested in running and hoped to have the chance to talk to President Bush about it that night at a $25,000-per-person national party fund-raiser in Winnetka.
"I don't think he knows that I'm the only one of the Senate candidates that always wore a Bush re-election button," Oberweis said. He said he also wanted to "clarify" his stand on immigration; during the primary, his hardline ads targeting illegal immigration upset some republicans and split from the party line.