STEVE INSKEEP, host:
OK, losing Ted Kennedys old Senate seat was a blow to the White House and to Democrats. But there are scenarios that could be even worse. Consider losing President Obamas old Senate seat in Illinois. Democrats fear that could happen in November. The Republicans look likely to nominate moderate Congressman Mark Kirk in next Tuesdays Illinois primary. The Democrats are battling among themselves over who is best able to connect with unhappy voters.
NPR's David Schaper reports from Chicago.
DAVID SCHAPER: Ever since Democrats fumbled the hand-off of the Senate seat after Mr. Obama was elected president, Illinois Republicans have been hoping to force a turnover.
They want to exploit the controversial appointment of the current seat holder, Roland Burris. Former Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich appointed Burris after being arrested for trying to sell the Senate seat. And now after Massachusetts, the GOP here in Illinois seems even more emboldened.
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SCHAPER: Polls show that Illinois Republican voters will likely nominate moderate, five-term Congressman Mark Kirk in next Tuesday's primary. He is considered by many to be the most electable Illinois Republican in some time, as every statewide office is now held by Democrats. And that's turned the Democratic primary race for the Senate seat into a battle of who stacks up best against Mark Kirk.
Ms. CHERYLE JACKSON (President, Chicago Urban League): I am the best Democratic candidate to beat Mark Kirk because I'm strongest on the issues that Mark Kirk is weakest on.
SCHAPER: Cheryle Jackson, on leave as president of the Chicago Urban League, says those issues are jobs and the economy. She says the Massachusetts vote a weak ago signaled that voters are angry that Washington seems more focused on helping Wall Street than Main Street.
But Jackson, who worked for NPR in communications over a decade ago, is not well-known around the state, and she carries the baggage of having been Rod Blagojevich's spokeswoman for almost four years.
Frontrunner Alexi Giannoulias, the 33-year-old state treasurer who is a basketball-playing friend of the president's, agrees that voters are angry.
Mr. ALEXI GIANNOULIAS (Chicago State Treasurer): And they're angry with insider politics. And I think for the past 10 years, Mark Kirk has been a part of that culture. He's taken money from insurance companies, from Wall Street banks, from large corporations, and he's voted their way time and time again.
SCHAPER: But as Giannoulias criticizes Kirk, he is on the defensive over a state college savings program that lost millions and his family's bank ties to Tony Rezko, the Blagojevich fundraiser convicted on corruption charges.
Mr. DAVID HOFFMAN (Former Federal Prosecutor and Chicago Inspector General): Here's the question on people's minds: Who can we trust?
SCHAPER: First-time candidate David Hoffman emphasizes he is scandal-free. The former federal prosecutor and independent inspector general at Chicago's City Hall says that's critically important for the nominee if the Democrats are to having any chance of keeping the seat.
Mr. HOFFMAN: We are worse off in Massachusetts because of the very corruption scandals that have racked the Democratic Party here, and we absolutely need a nominee who is going to take the corruption issue off the table, not allow Blagojevich or Rezko or any of these other characters to come in, and I am the only nominee who does that.
SCHAPER: Hoffman has earned the endorsements of just about every newspaper in the state, and though he's been gaining a lot of ground in recent weeks, polls still put both Hoffman and Jackson well behind Giannoulias.
Professor MICHAEL MEZEY (Political Science, DePaul University): The Democratic field is, to say the least, unimpressive.
SCHAPER: DePaul University political science Professor Michael Mezey says no matter who wins the Democrat primary next week, Republican Kirk will be tough to beat.
Prof. MEZEY: I don't think it's a lock, by any means. I think it'll be a competitive race, but I would have this high up on the list of seats that might well flip in 2010.
SCHAPER: Mezey says Democrats are right to worry that like Massachusetts, Illinois could see its deep blue Senate seat turn red.
David Schaper, NPR News, Chicago.
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