SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Jim Edgar (search) said no to running for office in 1998. He said it again in 2001. And in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Yet many Republicans are once again hoping the former governor will ride to the party's rescue by coming out of retirement to take on Democrat Gov. Rod Blagojevich (search) next year.
They picture him as a serious-minded alternative to Blagojevich and his fun-loving image — Ward Cleaver to Blagojevich's Beaver. They dream of a candidate with the political skills to win four major races and a record of guiding the state through a budget crisis.
Edgar is seriously considering it this time, motivated in part by what he considers the Democratic governor's mismanagement. He said ordinary citizens, as well as party insiders, are insisting the state needs him again.
"It all comes down to: Is it really important that I run? Can someone else do it?" he said.
Democrats mock the idea as proof that Republicans are a party in disarray, unable to find new leaders.
"Republicans seem to only go back to the past, and I think that's representative of how they think policy-wise," said Democratic Comptroller Dan Hynes. "They don't want to change with the world, they don't want to move Illinois forward."
Illinois Republicans have endured one disaster after another since Edgar declined to run in 1998 for a third term.
Gov. George Ryan's (search) single term was dominated by scandal, and the party chairman had to step down because of ethics problems of his own.
Their Senate nominee last year dropped out after lying about sex allegations in his divorce files. His replacement was Alan Keyes (search), an out-of-stater who lost spectacularly.
"People look back to the Keyes thing and say, `If that's moving the party forward, I'll take Edgar,'" said U.S. Rep. Ray LaHood (search) of Peoria, who considered running for governor himself.
The long list of Republicans interested in the governor's office is dominated by relative unknowns who have never won a major office, let alone beaten an incumbent Democrat armed with millions of campaign dollars in a Democrat-leaning state.
When he was courted in the past — for Republican chairman, governor and U.S. Senate — Edgar considered running but soon rejected the idea.
Edgar, whose resume includes two terms as secretary of state and two as governor, says he is giving it more thought this time. One reason is that he is intrigued by a battle between an incumbent governor and a former governor, something he thinks has never before happened in Illinois.
"It would change the dynamics," Edgar said. "You've got records, and hopefully the media would spend a lot more time than they usually do comparing them."
Edgar said he's in no hurry to decide, even suggesting he might not resolve the issue until December, when candidates must file to run for office.
That leaves the other potential candidates in a difficult position.
Potential supporters might not help until they know Edgar's plans. If Edgar doesn't run, the others might be seen as leftovers. But Edgar and others insist all that would be long forgotten by the time voters go to the polls.
Ron Gidwitz (search), a Chicago businessman who already has launched his campaign for the GOP nomination, said he has been able to raise millions of dollars and round up plenty of support despite Edgar's potential run.
Gidwitz also said he has no intention of stepping aside for Edgar.
"If he wants to get in the race, that's fine," Gidwitz said. "That's what primaries are for."
Mike Lawrence, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, was Edgar's press secretary and a top adviser. He thinks there's less than a 50-50 chance that Edgar will run.
Edgar would have to leave his job teaching at the University of Illinois and serving on corporate boards, resulting in less pay and far more stress, Lawrence noted. Edgar has also served as governor already, giving him less of a personal challenge, and he would inherit a government with deep financial problems.
"From a personal standpoint, I can't think of a good reason (for him) to do this," Lawrence said.
Blagojevich could be vulnerable.
He has publicly feuded with his father-in-law, a powerful Chicago alderman who helped get him elected. State audits have found serious management problems. He has awarded jobs and contracts to campaign donors and significantly increased state debt to balance the budget.
Blagojevich often jokes about how poorly he did in college and talks about his love of Elvis Presley. He sometimes makes eyebrow-raising statements, such as his boast of "testicular virility."
A poll in May found that only 35 percent of likely voters approve of his performance. Forty-five percent said they would prefer a new governor.
But Blagojevich also has kept government going during tight times without raising income or sales taxes and still managed to increase school funding. He also led successful efforts to raise the minimum wage and tighten state ethics laws.