So why did Republican gubernatorial nominee Judy Baar Topinka go with a Chicago casino idea to help fund her education, property-tax, and infrastructure proposals?

Well, a general tax increase had all but been ruled out months ago. Polling and focus-grouping showed high levels of opposition to a tax hike. Plus, Topinka already has enough troubles with her Republican base without doing something like that.

The campaign had already proposed about $3 billion in Medicaid and other state-spending cuts over four years, but she can only back so many cuts. Topinka wants AFSCME's endorsement and is on track to get the Illinois Education Association's nod. Her pursuit of those tax-eating groups and others like them makes it highly unlikely that we'll see many more budget-cutting ideas before November.

Topinka has strongly opposed Governor Rod Blagojevich's asset-sale ideas, so that angle was out of the question. Temporary solutions such as the four-year infusion of cash from the lottery sale would make her look too much like Blagojevich, so forget that.

Pretty much all that was left was gaming. Voters don't like gaming all that much, but when given the choice of a tax increase for schools or a limited version of gaming expansion like Topinka has proposed, they'll go with gaming more often than not, particularly Republican and independent voters.

Promising something big to Chicago's mayor never hurts, either. Now that Mayor Daley knows his schools will get more money and his city will get more jobs and tourism, he might not be so eager to campaign extra hard for Governor Blagojevich.

A better question than "Why gaming?" might be: "Why did she propose any specifics at all?" Challengers rarely set forth as many details as Topinka did last week.

Money is one answer. Chicago-area business leaders have been holding back on their checkbooks to see what she would do. The biz types, just like the state's political press corps, completely bought in to Governor Blagojevich's constant harangue that Topinka's campaign lacked substance because she didn't have any detailed plans. The other reason is that since the primary, Topinka's campaign hasn't exactly inspired a whole lot of confidence, and the business people needed to be convinced that she was on-the-ball.

Still, I am always wary of candidates who please the pundits. All the early press reports and columns claimed that Dawn Clark Netsch showed guts when she proposed a 42-percent income-tax hike in 1994. Glenn Poshard was said to have displayed supreme integrity in 1998 when he refused to accept PAC contributions. Paul Vallas' intelligence and straight-talking honesty were universally hailed in Punditland four years ago.

My first reaction to Topinka's idea was, "I like the detail." Other reporters were similarly impressed. But we're almost always wrong about this stuff, at least initially. The political pros have a special knack for finding ways to turn the opposition's grand ideals into repulsive garbage. Netsch was successfully morphed from gutsy pol into an out-of-touch limousine liberal. Poshard was eventually trashed for bending his own contribution rules. Vallas was allowed to be falsely slimed and smeared. The reality of newspaper and TV stories is not the same reality as campaign advertising. And most voters reside in that latter realm.

Topinka's people may just be naive, but I get the feeling that they don't think this will be a huge issue come November. They've proven they can propose a four-year plan that drastically increases education and capital spending and addresses the property-tax issue, so they can move on. And the governor may now be forced to come up with his own ideas for holding the line on skyrocketing college tuition and providing some relief for property-tax payers. Governor Blagojevich might also be harshly confronted with his own hypocrisy: The same man who promised not to expand gaming then tried to do just that not once but twice and now accuses Topinka of flip-flopping on casinos.

Also, September will reportedly bring a slew of new stories about alleged corruption within the Blagojevich administration. And that's the real Topinka campaign plan. To them, this gaming proposal is mostly a sideshow, which is why it was introduced in August. The idea is to shepherd one story after another into the media starting sometime after Labor Day all the way through election day, and use that material in all of their negative ads.


Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax (a daily political newsletter) and (

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