Illinois GOP Senate hopefuls in bitter race to take on %J Moseley-Braun

March 16, 1998|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

CHICAGO -- Two Illinois Republicans who want the honor of retiring Democratic Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun in November are competing tomorrow in their party's primary, but whoever wins may not have the easy task it was once expected to be.

The Democratic incumbent, who has no primary challenge, appears to have recovered somewhat from a horrific first few years marked by campaign finance, staff and personal troubles. She doesn't figure to be such a pushover, no matter which of the Republicans earns the right to face her.

The two Republicans -- state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson and state Sen. Peter Fitzgerald -- have potential handicaps in a confrontation with Ms. Moseley-Braun. Ms. Didrickson, a proven vote-getter, is a moderate conservative who, like the Democratic incumbent, supports abortion rights. This fact has led Mr. Fitzgerald, a Reagan-style conservative, to charge that Ms. Didrickson would offer insufficient contrast to Ms. Moseley-Braun.

Popular support

Ms. Didrickson, however, has popular retiring Republican Gov. Jim Edgar -- and most of the rest of the party's establishment -- behind her. Conservatives of Mr. Fitzgerald's doctrinaire stripe, however, often do well in GOP primaries, though not so well in general elections. And, unfortunately for Ms. Didrickson, Mr. Fitzgerald is the wealthy son of a wealthy banker who is expected to have poured $8 million into the campaign by tomorrow with an almost constant television advertising blitz.

The Republican challenge to Ms. Moseley-Braun has been one of fits and starts. Until last summer, Mr. Edgar had been expected either to seek another term as governor or make the Senate race. When he decided to get out of elective politics altogether, an establishment Senate candidate had to be found, and Ms. Didrickson was it, although she had said she preferred to run for secretary of state as a stepping stone to her main ambition, the governorship.

The Republican Senate primary is a classic contest between Ms. Didrickson, a moderate who tempers her fiscal conservatism with social liberalism, supporting abortion rights and gun control, and Mr. Fitzgerald, a down-the-line conservative who takes the opposite position on both issues and hammers at Ms. Didrickson as a consistent tax-raiser. He runs a television ad capturing her saying: "If you've been there long enough, you're going to vote for increases."

The gender issue

The GOP establishment hopes Ms. Didrickson, if nominated, would be able to bring home many Republican women who flocked to Ms. Moseley-Braun in 1992. In the Democratic primary, she upset incumbent Democrat Alan J. Dixon, who had incurred the ire of Illinois female voters by supporting the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas in spite of charges of sexual harassment by his former subordinate, Anita Hill.

But Mr. Fitzgerald says the Republican Party will make a major mistake if it fails to send him against Ms. Moseley-Braun, because he would offer a much clearer choice to Illinois voters. The elections of Mr. Edgar and his moderate Republican predecessor, Jim Thompson, indicate, however, that voters here shun undiluted conservatism when choosing their governors.

Both Ms. Didrickson and Mr. Fitzgerald are bucking recent history in their senatorial bids. Illinois Republicans have not captured a U.S. Senate seat for 20 years, when business executive Charles Percy won his last term. But the national Republican Party has targeted Ms. Moseley-Braun as among the most vulnerable Democrats seeking re-election, and her defeat could kill any Democratic chance to regain control of the Senate.

Ms. Didrickson, therefore, could expect a healthy infusion of campaign funds by winning the primary. But before she can get it, she must overcome the great money disadvantage she has suffered in her primary against Mr. Fitzgerald.

His television blitz paints the handsome 37-year-old as a courageous maverick who hasn't hesitated to take on members of his own party when they failed to represent the public interest. One ad, noting his opposition to giveaway casino licenses to political cronies, says Mr. Fitzgerald is "a different kind of candidate" who fights corruption "even when it touches his own party."

The most recent polls have Ms. Didrickson and Mr. Fitzgerald in a virtual dead heat, the Chicago Tribune giving Mr. Fitzgerald a slight edge, 39 percent to 37, and the Chicago Sun-Times placing the race at 34-34. The question is whether Ms. Didrickson's establishment support, or Mr. Fitzgerald's money and bell-clear conservative call, will win out tomorrow.

Jack Germond and Jules Witcover write from The Sun's Washington bureau.

Pub Date: 3/16/98

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