With a week to go until Illinois voters cast their primary ballots, a new Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 poll shows Democrat Barack Obama has surged to front-runner status while Republican Jack Ryan maintains a sizable lead in the nomination battles for the U.S. Senate.
The survey, the last polling by the Tribune prior to the March 16 election, also shows Blair Hull, the Democratic front-runner in a similar poll three weeks ago, has seen support plummet as his campaign was consumed by allegations that he verbally and physically abused an ex-wife during a messy divorce.
At the same time, attempts by Republican rivals to raise questions of character against Ryan over portions of his sealed divorce file involving actress and ex-wife Jeri Ryan have so far failed to tarnish the image of the investor-turned-teacher.
Even so, the results of the survey conducted by Market Shares Corp. of Mt. Prospect from March 3-6 indicate that support among Democrats and Republicans alike remains extremely fluid amid what is anticipated to be an election with low voter turnout. That places a premium on candidate efforts to crank out their base vote and get supporters to the polls.
The Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 survey of 602 likely Democratic primary voters showed Obama, a state senator from the Hyde Park neighborhood, with the support of 33 percent of primary voters, compared with 19 percent for state Comptroller Dan Hynes and 16 percent for Hull. Cook County Treasurer Maria Pappas had 8 percent, former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico had 6 percent and health-care executive Joyce Washington and radio talk show host Nancy Skinner each had 1 percent.
On the Republican side, the survey of 580 likely GOP primary voters showed Ryan had the backing of 32 percent, compared with 11 percent for investment dealer and boutique dairy owner Jim Oberweis and 10 percent for businessman Andy McKenna Jr. State Sen. Steve Rauschenberger of Elgin had 8 percent, retired Gen. John Borling had 2 percent and Jonathan Wright, an assistant prosecutor in Downstate Logan County had 1 percent. Two other candidates each had the support of less than 1 percent of Republicans surveyed.
Reflecting both the extreme size of an unfamiliar Republican field and voter uncertainty about the candidates, fully 35 percent of GOP voters were still undecided a week from the election.
Both surveys, conducted through random, person-to-person telephone interviews with likely registered voters, have an error margin of 4 percentage points.
The results of the Democratic survey demonstrate a dramatic shift in voter opinion about Hull, a multimillionaire who has swept away all records for campaign spending in Illinois by pumping more than $29 million of his own money into the race.
The findings also indicate a rapid decline in the number of undecided voters. Three weeks ago, more than one-third of Democrats had not picked a candidate to support; now that number is down to 16 percent.
While Hull has seen his political fortunes cascade downward, Obama has seen his grow amid a spate of targeted mailings and TV ads promoting his legislative record to women and the elderly on such issues as health care.
Moreover, Obama, the first African-American president of the Harvard Law Review, has finally begun to show success among Chicago's black voters. Just three weeks ago, Obama had the backing of only 38 percent of African-American voters. Now, that figure is 62 percent.
The poll showed Obama leading Hynes significantly in Chicago, suburban Cook County and the collar counties, while Hynes and Hull are splitting the Downstate vote. Among white voters, Obama, Hynes and Hull are showing nearly equal support.
Hynes, the son of veteran Democratic politician Tom Hynes, has received the endorsement of the powerful state AFL-CIO and is counting heavily on political organization and labor support to make sure his voters get to the polls in what appears to be shaping up as a low-turnout election.
Only three weeks ago, a Tribune/WGN-Ch. 9 survey found Hull, who has advertised extensively on TV across the state, holding the edge with 24 percent backing from Democrats surveyed, compared with 15 percent for Obama and 11 for Hynes.
But in the intervening period, Hull has been put on the defensive as he tried to explain the circumstances surrounding his 1998 divorce from Brenda Sexton and an order of protection that she had sought against him. It was the second breakup for Hull and Sexton, who were married and divorced twice in a span of three years.
Records show Sexton accused Hull of directing vulgar epithets at her, threatening her life and hitting her on the shin.
Hull did not deny her claims, but he noted that prosecutors dismissed charges against him resulting from one confrontation and contended that Sexton exaggerated his behavior and sought the protection order to try to squeeze him for a bigger divorce settlement.
Sexton has denied she had any financial motivation for the protection order request and said she sought it because she became fearful of Hull and wanted him to move out.
In a flurry of 11th-hour newspaper and broadcast ads, Hull has attempted to blame media and political "insiders" for sullying his reputation.
Only 13 percent of Democratic voters said the details of Hull's divorce affected their decision on whether to vote for him. Yet one out of every four voters said they had an unfavorable view of Hull, while only 35 percent said they had a favorable impression of him.
Indeed, more voters in Chicago and suburban Cook County viewed Hull unfavorably than favorably and voters in the collar counties were equally split. Only Downstate, where media coverage of the divorce controversy has been less prominent, did voters view Hull more favorably than not.
Character has become a prominent issue for Hull, a political unknown before entering the race. Half of the Democrats polled said they believed the divorce controversy would have an effect on his chances of winning the nomination.
Among Republicans, Ryan was the best known of the Senate candidates and the poll showed him with a significant lead over Oberweis in all regions of the state and among men and women.
Ryan, who has used more than $4.7 million of his own money in his first race for public office, has used an extensive TV ad campaign to portray himself as an anti-tax conservative outsider.
Mindful of how the character issue fight has wounded Hull's campaign, Ryan's opponents have sought to draw him into the same predicament by hammering at his decision not to release court documents associated with his 1999 divorce from Jeri Ryan, who has starred in TV's "Star Trek: Voyager" and "Boston Public."
A judge initially refused to seal the documents, contending Ryan was trying to protect a future political career from embarrassment. But the judge reversed himself following the arrest of a man stalking Jeri Ryan. Jack Ryan has maintained the documents must remain sealed to protect the couple's son, who resides primarily with Jeri Ryan.
The poll showed Jack Ryan's divorce controversy has not harmed his campaign in the way Hull's has. Indeed, Ryan's edge has grown in recent weeks over Oberweis, who has attempted to leverage the name identification of his successful dairy into votes.
In an attempt to distinguish himself from the field, Oberweis has also demonstrated a single-subject focus in his campaign. He has run TV ads focusing on immigration that contend "10,000 illegal immigrants a day" enter the United States. Yet Oberweis acknowledged on Monday the numbers he uses in his advertising may be overstated.
Almost half of Republican voters said they sided with Oberweis in his opposition to President Bush's plan to allow illegal immigrants to work temporarily in the U.S. Still, 40 percent said they thought Oberweis was exaggerating the illegal immigration problem in his advertising while 34 percent said he wasn't.
With more than one-in-three Republican primary voters undecided just days before the election, the contest for the GOP nomination remains very unsettled and hinges on the ability of candidates with no built-in political organization to generate votes next Tuesday.
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Q.: If the primary election for the U.S. Senate was held today, for whom would you vote?
FEB.11-17 MARCH 3-6
Barack Obama 15% 33%
Dan Hynes 11% 19%
Blair Hull 24% 16%
Maria Papas 9% 8%
Gery Chico 5% 6%
FEB.11-17 MARCH 3-6
Jack Ryan 30% 32%
Jim Oberweis 12% 11%
Andy McKenna Jr. 8% 10%
Steve Rauschenberger 4% 8%
Source: Market Shares Corp. poll conducted March 3-6 of 602 Democratic and 580 Republican voters likely to vote in the march 16, 2004 primary. Margin of error is +/-4 percentage points.- - -
Divorce, TV ads cause problems for candidates
Half of Illinois Democratic voters think Blair Hull's divorce problems will affect his chances, according to a Tribune/WGN-TV poll. Many Republican voters believe Jim Oberweis exaggerated the gravity of illegal immigration in his TV ads.
BLAIR HULL'S DIVORCE
Q: How much do you think circumstance regarding Blair Hull's divorce in 1998 will affect his chances of winning this election?
A lot/some: 50%Q: Jim Oberweis has been running TV ads that say 10,000 illegal immigrants move to this country everyday. Do you think Oberweis is exaggerating the illegal immigration problem?
Don't know: 13%
Very little/nothing: 37%
JIM OBERWEIS' TV ADS
Exaggerating: 40%Note: Republicans Chirinjeev Kathuria and Norm Hill polled less then 1 percent.
Don't know: 26%
Not exaggerating: 34%
Barack Obama 33%
Dan Hynes 19%
Blair Hull 16%
Maria Papas 8%
Gery Chico 6%
Joyce Washington 1%
Nancy Skinner 1%
Jack Ryan 32%
Jim Oberweis 11%
Andy McKenna Jr. 10%
Steve Rauschenberger 8%
Jonathan Wright 1%
John Borling 2%
Source: Market Shares Corp. poll conducted March 3-6 of 602 Democratic and 580 Republican voters likely to vote in the march 16, 2004 primary. Margin of error is +/-4 percentage points.