Former Air Force Maj. Gen. John Borling has an inspiring personal story: He's a former fighter pilot who met Sen. John McCain "tapping through a thick wall" at a prison camp in North Vietnam. He has devoted his life to service and has a wide grasp of the issues.
But there's one thing he apparently does not have in his campaign for Illinois' open U.S. Senate seat: much support.
Less than 1 percent of 600 likely Republican voters surveyed in a mid-February Tribune/WGN-TV poll said they planned to vote for Borling, Chirinjeev Kathuria, Jonathan Wright or Norm Hill. Borling admits the polls have been discouraging, but he can't explain them.
"I think the Tribune is asking the wrong people," he said jokingly.
The four candidates are fighting an uphill battle to break out, facing massive disadvantages in money, media coverage and name recognition. The one bright spot in the poll they cling to is that many Republican voters were undecided for the March 16 primary. The other candidates in the race are Andy McKenna, Jim Oberweis, Jack Ryan and state Rep. Steven Rauschenberger.
Borling, 63, a 37-year military veteran and 6 1/2-year prisoner of war who calls himself a social moderate and fiscal conservative, has been courting the groups he sees as most receptive to his message: veterans and active military personnel, seniors and Republicans who support abortion rights.
Raised on Chicago's South Side and now living in Rockford, Borling runs an energy conservation consulting company and founded Service Over Self America, a non-profit group advocating a year of mandatory military service for Americans age 18 to 26. Borling said the program would strengthen a military "stretched paper thin" by the war on terrorism and help build character among the nation's young adults.
"It's not only needed now for national security purposes and for nation-building ... it's going to be a way to interdict the drug and violence culture," said Borling, who was endorsed by McCain and uses "Duty Calls Again" as a campaign slogan.
Speaking recently before a class of students at Zion-Benton Township High School, Borling joked that he could do more pushups than his opponents and quoted John F. Kennedy in describing himself as an "idealist without illusions." As a senator, Borling said, he would be more statesman than politician.
"I certainly don't need the honors," he said. "It's not a manhood-reinforcement for me."
Jonathan Wright, 37, of Lincoln is an assistant state's attorney in Logan County. Because he was born and raised in DuPage County, he argues he's the only one in the GOP field who brings a statewide perspective.
"I know what it's like to live in a town of 300 people, I know what it's like to live in a Chicago suburban area and I know what it's like to live in an agricultural area," he said.
Wright, a deacon who teaches Sunday school at his Baptist church, opposes abortion in all cases. During one term in the Illinois House, he sponsored a measure to allow public school students to participate in student-led prayer. As a senator, he would support elimination of the U.S. Department of Education to enhance local control over education issues.
Chirinjeev Kathuria, 39, a businessman from Oak Brook, says he hopes his appeal to Asian-Americans and other minorities, immigrants and independent voters will be enough to distinguish him in the race.
"If my base comes out, I'll win," he said.
A Sikh whose parents moved to the United States when he was less than a year old, Kathuria argues that he is the GOP's best hope in the general election because he can expand the party and appeal to minorities. A valedictorian at Downers Grove North High School, he later received a medical degree from Brown University. Kathuria said he was motivated to join the race because he was "able to live the American dream, and for me the basic thing was, it was my way of giving back."
His campaign has focused on health-care issues such as reducing costs of pharmaceuticals and moving people off Medicaid into private care, as well as stimulating small businesses and using technology to enhance homeland security.
In October, Kathuria filed a lawsuit against the Tribune, claiming he was defamed in a front-page story that pointed out inconsistencies and embellishments in his resume.
Norm Hill, 74, an insurance broker from Grayslake who was born in Mississippi and moved to Illinois after 23 years in the Army, got into the race after hearing the other candidates speak at a forum in Gurnee.
"I figured none of these people are going to do me any good, so I decided to do it myself," he said.
A Republican Party precinct committeeman in Lake County, Hill said he wants to reduce the cost of prescription drugs and improve health care for veterans and senior citizens. He also said he would stand by President Bush in the war on terror.
"I think he's doing a fantastic job, but he needs help because right now he's being raked over the coals, especially in an election year," Hill said.
He is confident that once enough people hear his message, he'll prevail. "When you listen to me, you hear what I'm all about," he said.