Illinois GOP Scrambles to Find Senate Candidate

Illinois Republicans rushed to dig themselves out of a deep political hole on Saturday and find a replacement for Senate candidate Jack Ryan (search), who dropped out of the race just four months before the election amid tawdry sex allegations.

About 150 Republican leaders met in Chicago a day after Ryan's withdrawal to discuss candidates who might mount a tremendous comeback against Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama (search). Potential replacements include a state senator who seems to be an early favorite, a driven millionaire and a former member of the Chicago Bears.

GOP leaders expect to make a decision within three weeks. The latecomer then has the daunting task of trying to raise campaign cash fast to get statewide name recognition.

"This is like starting over, but there's still time," State Treasurer Judy Barr Topinka, chairwoman of the Illinois Republican Party, said on her way into the meeting, which was part of a leadership retreat for Republicans that had been scheduled for months.

The Republican State Central Committee, which will choose Ryan's replacement, broke away for another meeting during the retreat but did not discuss specific candidates, committeeman Bob Kjellander said. He said the 19-member body will select a candidate in mid-July after seeking input from state Republicans.

Ryan, a 44-year-old investment banker turned teacher, saw his once promising candidacy torpedoed this week after a California judge opened records from his nasty 1999 divorce from television actress Jeri Lynn Ryan (search). In them, Jeri Ryan contended her ex-husband took her to sex clubs and tried to pressure her to have public sex.

Jack Ryan denied the allegations but dropped out of the race on Friday after conceding the embarrassing accusations would distract from the campaign.

One leading replacement is state Sen. Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin, who finished third to Ryan in the Republican primary despite having little campaign cash. Also on the list are dairy owner Jim Oberweis and businessman Andy McKenna, who also ran in the primary.

Others up for consideration include Ron Gidwitz, the former chairman of the State Board of Education (news - web sites) and a millionaire who is eager to enter politics. And there's Bob Thomas, a member of the Illinois Supreme Court and former kicker for the Chicago Bears.

Three Republicans with high statewide name recognition — Topinka, former Gov. Jim Edgar and former Gov. James Thompson — have declined to run.

Three state senators who serve on the committee that will choose the new candidate said Saturday that picking one of Ryan's opponents from the primary is likely because they're already more familiar to voters statewide.

They also agreed Rauschenberger would be a good choice because of his experience in the Legislature with Obama, who Republicans contend is too liberal to represent Illinois in Washington.

"Obama's record, I think, would have a hard time even selling in Massachusetts, let alone Illinois," said state Sen. Dave Syverson. "If the people study the candidates, Rauschenberger won't need millions of dollars of slick ads. His record will stand for itself."

But any Republican candidate would become an instant underdog against Obama in the campaign for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald. Obama held a wide lead over Ryan even before the scandal broke.

Rauschenberger said he would be glad to discuss replacing Ryan with Republican leaders. He said the next candidate must be selected soon to build a winning candidacy.

"A winning personality is a great thing, but it's not enough if you're not right on the issues," Rauschenberger said. "The Republican candidate can win this election, but whoever it is, he or she has got to get started."

Topinka said she hopes choosing a new candidate will end the recent turmoil in Ryan's life.

"We need to let that poor man get his whole life together," she said. "I am hoping that he just has a nice, quiet place to get back to his family life, and to some normalcy."