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Surprise Hurdle for Illinois Front-Runner

Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, left, has the early lead among Democrats, but the White House's move to get another candidate elected to the president's former seat may hurt Giannoulias.
Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, left, has the early lead among Democrats, but the White House's move to get another candidate elected to the president's former seat may hurt Giannoulias. (By M. Spencer Green -- Associated Press)

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By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 18, 2009

CHICAGO, Oct. 17 -- Alexi Giannoulias set out to make himself the inevitable Democratic nominee for President Obama's old Senate seat. But resistance from an unexpected quarter has slowed him down.

Giannoulias is young, engaging, handsome and rich. He played professional basketball in Greece and traded jump shots with Obama on the courts of Chicago. When he ran successfully for Illinois treasurer in 2006 at age 30, the future president called him "one of the most outstanding young men I could ever hope to meet."

All to the good, but this is Illinois politics, where the unpredictable seems normal. It was here that a little-known state senator, an outsider, came from behind to win the 2004 Senate primary, and it was this state's second-term governor who was led away in FBI handcuffs.

Launching his campaign early, Giannoulias is well ahead of the Democratic field in money raised and endorsements gathered. Yet while his campaign touts the Obama connection and focuses on the likely Republican nominee, Rep. Mark Steven Kirk, two untested but ambitious Democrats aim to deny the prince his crown.

One is David H. Hoffman, 42, a white former federal prosecutor who has spent the last four years busily investigating dealmaking and corruption as Chicago's inspector general, at times challenging six-term Mayor Richard M. Daley (D).

The other is Cheryle Robinson Jackson, 44, the black president of the Chicago Urban League and a onetime spokeswoman for indicted former governor Rod Blagojevich (D). She has raised less money, instead counting on news coverage and a significant African American turnout, especially in Chicago, where a high-profile race for Cook County board president is underway.

"It's anybody's race," Jackson campaign manager Rodney Shelton said. "We have a lot of work to do. The other guys have a lot of work to do."

Giannoulias is the clear front-runner, but at a key moment, Obama and Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel -- a former Chicago congressman and relentless recruiter of Democratic candidates -- did not turn to him. As a result, Giannoulias is receiving a more cautious reception back home than he had counted on and, probably, greater scrutiny.

"There being some anxiety with Alexi, some Democrats are going to be willing to take chances elsewhere," said one Democratic consultant who is not taking sides. "Alexi is going to be vulnerable to that."

A well-connected political strategist described surprise at "phone calls from Obama donors and progressives" who are unsure about Giannoulias. The consultant, noting that Hoffman is largely unknown and that Jackson's campaign skills are unproven, said the race "is Alexi's to lose, but he's got a lot of issues."

The White House move came in the messy aftermath of Blagojevich's appointment of Sen. Roland Burris (D) to Obama's former seat. With Burris given no chance to win in 2010 and Giannoulias planning a run, Obama instead pressed Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan (D) to enter the race. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D) did the same.

Madigan, with $4 million in her Illinois campaign treasury and lofty favorability ratings, had coveted the governor's seat, but she decided to seek a third term as attorney general. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D) and Chicago businessman Chris Kennedy also opted out.

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