If you're wondering why Governor Rod Blagojevich would flip-flop on his solemn vow to reform the state's massively underfunded pension systems, you don't have to look much farther than the most recent poll. A survey of 1,000 registered Illinois voters taken a week ago showed Republican state Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka leading Democrat Blagojevich by almost 10 percentage points.

The automated poll, paid for by the Topinka campaign, showed Topinka ahead of Blagojevich 45.8 to 36.4, with 18 percent undecided. The survey had a margin of error of plus-or-minus 3 percent.

The poll tracked with two recent surveys taken by the Chicago Tribune and SurveyUSA when it found that the governor's job-approval rating was 34 percent, while his disapproval was 53 percent. Both the Trib and SurveyUSA had the guv's approval in the mid-30s, while SurveyUSA's disapproval was very close to Topinka's answer. The Tribune had his disapproval at 44 percent. SurveyUSA, like Topinka, polled registered voters, while the Tribune questioned likely voters.

The Topinka survey tracked fairly well with the Tribune poll by region. For instance, the Trib found that just 28 percent of Downstaters want to see Blagojevich re-elected, and 30 percent approved of his job performance. Topinka's poll found him with a 29.5 re-elect Downstate and a 28-percent job-approval rating. According to Topinka's poll, the governor led the treasurer in Chicago 62 to 22, but Topinka led everywhere else: 56 to 23 in the collar counties, 45 to 38.5 in suburban Cook county, and 53.5 to 29.5 Downstate.

A governor under siege is a dream come true for people like House Speaker Michael Madigan. Rod Blagojevich has been a thorn in Madigan's side for years, and they have traded barbs ever since Blagojevich won the 2002 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Blagojevich has never taken Madigan's usually sage advice, and this has irritated the speaker to no end.

But Madigan has been unusually quiet this year. No longer did he sharply criticize the governor's budget proposals or threaten to kill the governor's legislative initiatives. He's even gone out of his way to say nice things about his former adversary.

It wasn't difficult for Madigan, or anyone else for that matter, to see that the governor was heading for trouble when Blagojevich picked a nasty public fight with his own father-in-law last December. Constant missteps and an escalating series of scandals ever since have hammered the governor's approval ratings. His re-election prospects suddenly appeared questionable, and Madigan knew that the governor would need some friends soon.

Madigan decided last year that the state ought to restructure its pension payment schedule. The current payments are eating the budget alive. Skipping a couple years' worth of payments while adjusting the payoff schedule seemed like the best way out.

The governor flatly dismissed Madigan's idea last year. Blagojevich wanted to do things his own way and, as a result, we ended up with a two-month overtime session that accomplished very little.

This year, the governor drafted a fatally flawed budget proposal. Much of it was based on drastic benefit reforms for state workers and teachers. Blagojevich warned of looming bankruptcy if benefits for future public employees weren't cut. "This is a crisis that we must solve, and we'd better solve it now," he said at the time.

Unions representing those state workers and teachers went a little nuts after the speech and have been pressuring legislators and the governor ever since. When he was still riding high in the polls, the governor could ignore complaints from the Democratic Party's natural constituencies. But when his numbers suddenly tanked, he needed a quick way out of his self-created mess. If a primary opponent was lured into the race because of those terrible poll numbers, it's possible that the unions could abandon him next spring, and that could prove disastrous with Democratic primary voters.

It was too late in the session to come up with an entirely new budget, so Blagojevich turned to an unlikely ally: Speaker Madigan. Madigan dusted off his pension-holiday plan. Blagojevich could avoid cutting benefits for union workers, adjourn the session on-time, and then take a few weeks to re-think his approach to governing, without the distraction of an overtime-weary legislature and news media. The governor jumped at the opportunity.

There's always a reason behind Madigan's master-chess-player behavior. It's why he almost always gets his way. This year has been no exception.

Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.blogspot.com).

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