Sound familiar so far? It should. Rod Blagojevich has had a huge and insurmountable-looking lead over Jim Ryan ever since the March primary. And some very major Republican-leaning interest groups, such as the Illinois State Medical Society and the Illinois Retail Merchants Association, have endorsed the Democrat and contributed big bucks. Former Governor Jim Thompson, a Republican, even hosted an event for Blago at his downtown law office. The air of inevitability has surrounded Blagojevich for months.
Anyway, back to 1998. The race tightened up a lot a few weeks before the election as the public started noticing news coverage about the budding corruption scandal at Ryan's secretary-of-state office. Voters also began to realize that even though Democrat Glenn Poshard was running a terrible campaign, had a goofy-looking mustache, and was pretty right-wing, he was still a decent man and might be a good governor.
You could smell the Republican panic in the air as media coverage intensified about the license-for-bribes scandal (except in overtly Republican outlets such as the Chicago Tribune) and some polls showed Democrat Glenn Poshard finally starting to close the gap.
In the end, George Ryan, who by all accounts was supposed to slaughter Glenn Poshard, only won by the barest of margins.
About a week or so ago, voters started sensing what some of us in the political and news businesses have known for a long time. Rod Blagojevich is a poll-driven, over-handled goofball who can't seem to think on his feet and whose political connections are a bit on the shady side. And they might have grown tired of his attacks on Jim Ryan, even though some of those charges have plenty of merit.
As a consequence, Blago's numbers have dropped like a stone. What was once a 20-point lead is now as close as 6 in one poll. Blagojevich's performance in his last two debates with Jim Ryan seemed forced and over-aggressive. It seems to many of us that he and his campaign are panicking.
Jim Ryan's campaign manager, Carter Hendren, reportedly told Republican insiders all last week that if the campaign could raise a million dollars by the end of the week, they might just be able to win this race. According to the disclosure reports as of early Friday morning, Jim Ryan's campaign had raised about half that amount.
But if anyone can win this thing, Hendren can. The campaign manager for Jim Edgar's first gubernatorial race and for Senate President "Pate" Philip's decade-long winning streak, Hendren is legendary for keeping his wits while everyone else is freaking out - and Blago's campaign headquarters is obviously, as evidenced by the last two debates, not a sea of calm these days. Hendren has also succeeded in changing the subject of the campaign from Jim Ryan's character (George Ryan corruption, Rolando Cruz's wrongful conviction, etc.) to Blago's character (shady pals, Chicago-machine father-in-law, poor work ethic, etc.). And that is exactly where Jim Ryan has wanted to be all along. He just couldn't figure out how to get there until Hendren signed on to the campaign a few months ago.
Jim Ryan is also finally displaying the personal animation that he has kept concealed from public view throughout his political career. The speech coach Hendren hired in late summer evidently worked out, as did the challenge of a possible win. His newly warmed personality might thaw out some of the residual iciness in voters' veins toward his candidacy.
My friend Anderson thinks Blagojevich will eke out a close win on election day, just like George Ryan did four years ago. I don't know what to think any more.
Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at (http://www.capitolfax.com).