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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The next primary election takes place in President Obama's home state of Illinois. In addition to the presidential vote tomorrow, there are several House races on the ballot, mostly due to redistricting. And that includes a Democratic primary challenge to a congressman who is a member of a famous political family - Jesse Jackson, Jr. NPR's Cheryl Corley reports.

SANDI JACKSON: Good morning. Hey, everybody.

REPRESENTATIVE JESSE JACKSON JR: Hi, everyone.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Congressman Jesse Jackson and his wife Sandi, a Chicago alderman, took advantage of early voting recently, walking into a nearly empty polling place to cast their ballots. Afterwards, Jackson spoke about his primary election fight.

J. JACKSON: We're engaged in a great intra-party struggle within the second congressional district over its direction.

CORLEY: In the vast majority of congressional districts, drawn to favor one party or another, the primary race is often the ticket to winning. And Jackson has won his Democratic district repeatedly since winning a special election in 1995.

The district's reconfiguration added more rural areas to Jackson's mix of Chicago neighborhoods and southern suburbs, opening the door for a challenger.

Debbie Halvorson served one term and lost her seat in Congress in 2010, but the new second district includes areas she once represented. And Halvorson decided to take Jackson on.

DEBBIE HALVORSON: I made that decision because I believed that not only should people have a choice, but he hasn't done anything.

CORLEY: Jackson argues he's brought millions of dollars in projects to the district and has pushed relentlessly for a third metropolitan airport, which he believes will bring much needed jobs to the district.

J. JACKSON: I believe this election is a mandate on whether or not we will build this airport and create a south side and south suburbs that looks like the north side of Chicago and north suburbs.

CORLEY: But Halvorson says there has been little movement on the airport, and Jackson has spent too much time on it while neglecting other matters.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONVERSATION)

CORLEY: Halvorson has been taking that message everywhere, like at this suburban block club meeting, where she talks with a small group of voters about jobs and what she was able to do while she served in Congress.

HALVORSON: Like having brought a mega clinic for our veterans, to a hospital that would have soon been empty.

CORLEY: Her argument seems to be having some impact here. But one of the big issues in this race is who has backed President Obama's policies the most. That's crucial in a district where African-Americans, some of the president's most ardent supporters, make up 54 percent of the population.

So Jackson and Halvorson have been running dueling radio ads. Here's the one for Jackson which criticizes Halvorson for her votes in Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: In fact, Halvorson voted with the Republicans and against President Obama 88 times.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: How many?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: She voted 88 times with the Republicans and 88...

CORLEY: And here's Debbie Halvorson's response ad.

(SOUNDBITE OF A POLITICAL AD)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: She's a big supporter of President Obama's, too, voted 90 percent of the time with him.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: I read in the Sun Times, Jesse has been caught lying about Debbie's support for President Obama.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Yeah, well, that's because...

CORLEY: Jackson has been forced to defend his seat while the House Ethics Committee investigates him. A public reminder came last week when former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich reported to prison. The ethics committee is looking into allegations that a Jackson fundraiser was part of a scheme to raise money for the former governor in return for appointing Jackson to the Senate seat once held by President Obama.

Halvorson says those types of ethical distractions make it difficult for Jackson to represent the district.

HALVORSON: People are very confused. They don't understand how Rod Blagojevich could be going to jail for 14 years for trying to sell a seat and nothing is happening to Jesse Jackson Jr., because they know that he's connected to the whole scandal.

CORLEY: Jackson has never been charged with a crime and says he's not worried about the ethics investigation.

J. JACKSON: No, I'm confident I'm going to be vindicated from that process.

CORLEY: And despite the ethical cloud, Jackson has received big party endorsements from Chicago's mayor, the state's governor and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi. Halvorson says she has much more local support.

But the biggest issue for both candidates on Election Day will actually be motivating Democrats to come out, since there's no presidential primary on the Democratic ticket to spur voter turnout.

Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.

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