Surprise Hurdle for Illinois Front-Runner
Man Obama Once Called 'Outstanding' Faces White House Resistance in Senate Bid

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.

Sources familiar with the thinking of the White House and Durbin say Madigan was an obvious choice who would have kept the Democratic seat from being in play in a year when the party will be fighting across the country to retain the gains of the last two election cycles.

Giannoulias, in this view, was not a bad candidate, but he was not considered a sure thing. And this is a race that the White House, whose upper ranks are packed with Chicagoans, is determined not to lose.

The primary is Feb. 2, a month earlier than any other primary in the nation. The four candidates -- lawyer Jacob Meister is also in the race -- have been focusing on fundraising and building their operations.

Jackson, a former Amtrak vice president, traveled downstate last week by train, while Hoffman promoted himself as "the opposite of a political insider." He cited the "Blagojevich-Rezko era," referring to the convicted Blagojevich ally who borrowed money from the Giannoulias family's Broadway Bank and was a friend and early supporter of Obama.

Giannoulias expects to announce an economic message soon in a race that campaign manager Thomas C. Bowen says will be decided on the economy. In Washington last week, he visited Obama adviser David Axelrod, whose former Chicago consulting firm is working with Hoffman.

"Anytime someone releases a poll that says he's 20 points behind, he's in trouble," Bowen said, referring to a poll released by Hoffman last week that showed Giannoulias in the lead with 26 percent, Jackson at 12 percent and Hoffman at 7 percent.

Hoffman's preferred point appeared to be that 55 percent of voters remain undecided and that, when told about Broadway Bank loans to Antoin "Tony" Rezko, their concerns about Giannoulias rose. The Giannoulias camp counters that the candidate has long been gone from the bank and that many other banks extended loans to Rezko, once a prominent businessman and developer.

The Republican waiting for the winner is most likely to be Kirk, who must fend off a raft of more conservative primary candidates. A five-term member of the House from the North Shore, Kirk is counting on voter revulsion at corruption and a shift in the political winds to take Obama's seat in what remains a Democratic state.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company