CHICAGO – A string of 13 largely unknown U.S. Senate hopefuls made their cases to the state's Republican leaders Tuesday, spending about 15 minutes each explaining why they would be the best choice to take on heavily favored Democrat Barack Obama (search).
One aspiring candidate has run for president twice but never lived in Illinois. Another wears a white wig like George Washington's and has been living out of a car he calls Air Ford One (search).
Three are business executives with little to no political experience. The only woman to interview worked in the Bush administration but was accused of sexual harassment by a subordinate. Another is a Libertarian.
At least three people who were not even scheduled to interview were allowed to meet with the committee after showing up Tuesday.
"My party has not done nearly as good a job as the Democratic party in Illinois in grooming its young people," conceded Kirk Dillard, a member of the GOP committee choosing the new candidate.
It has been five long weeks for the party since Jack Ryan (search), the Republican primary winner, dropped his Senate campaign over embarrassing allegations about his sex life.
Party leaders have repeatedly tried and failed to reel in a big-name candidate — former governors, state senators, even former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka (search) toyed with the idea, then declined.
Whoever accepts the role now will have less three months to raise cash and campaign against Obama, a state senator from Chicago who has raised more than $10 million and gave the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Dairy owner James Oberweis, the second-place finisher in the GOP primary; Chicago attorney John Cox, who lost a 2002 Senate primary; and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes, whose name just surfaced this week, have the most support, but "as unbelievable as it is, there is not a front-runner," said committee member Kirk Dillard, a state senator.
Despite the lack of consensus before the meeting, MaryAlice Erickson, vice chairwoman of the committee, and Ronald Smith, secretary of the committee, wanted to choose a candidate Tuesday so they can start preparing. Others hoped to delay the decision.
Dillard, who considered but decided against being the replacement candidate to run for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, said Oberweis could gain more support if he toned down his tough stance against illegal immigration.
The fact that Republicans were looking at Keyes, who doesn't even live in Illinois, doesn't reflect badly on the party, Dillard said.
"Hillary Clinton proved that when you're a United State Senator, you have a little broader base than just your own state," he said.
Obama, in Champaign on Tuesday, said he thinks voters might balk at an out-of-state candidate.
"I can't imagine also that the Republican Party doesn't think that there is at least one person in Illinois that can represent their views," the state senator said. "They had eight candidates run in their primary, and I think it would be insulting to all of those folks to suggest that somehow they're not qualified to run as their standard-bearer."
Keyes, a United Nations ambassador appointed by President Reagan, ran for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996 and 2000. He also ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate in 1988 and 1992 from Maryland, where he and his wife still live. By law, Keyes would only have to live in Illinois by election day to be a candidate.