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Nation's 1st primary sets stage for Illinois showdown

Grain elevators are seen in the background next to an Illinois primary election polling place in Buckhart, Ill., Tuesday.
Grain elevators are seen in the background next to an Illinois primary election polling place in Buckhart, Ill., Tuesday.
Seth Perlman, Associated Press

CHICAGO — Illinois voters trickled to the polls Tuesday in the nation's first primary of the year to determine which Democrats will defend both the governor's office and a U.S. Senate seat against Republicans eyeing Democratic infighting and scandal.

The Republicans were pinning their hopes on the Democratic disarray that followed the ouster of Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who was kicked out of office over a long list of corruption charges, including the allegation that he tried to sell President Barack Obama's former Senate seat.

Losing that seat would be a bigger personal embarrassment for Obama than Republican Scott Brown's upset victory last month in Massachusetts, which took away the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat.

The nominees who emerge from the bruising primary will fight for the chance to run a state so deep in debt that it can't pay bills on time and must consider painful service cuts, higher taxes or both.

Some voters in Chicago sounded disgruntled after making their way through a steady morning snow to vote.

"I don't trust any of them," said John Rogers, a 62-year-old salesman, referring to a history of corruption among Illinois politicians. "Is anybody honest? No. You're voting for the lesser of two evils, as always."

Turnout appeared light at some polling stations. In the first three hours of voting, just 29 people cast ballots at the First United Presbyterian Church in Collinsville, east of St. Louis, election judge Dale Willeford said. That was consistent with low turnout in other primaries he's worked over nearly a decade, he said.

In the governor's race, incumbent Pat Quinn is seeking a full term after being thrust into office a year ago when Blagojevich was expelled. After walking to vote near his home, Quinn sounded prepared for victory or defeat.

"There's an old saying, 'One day a peacock, the next day a feather duster,'" he said. "I have to be ready for anything."

It initially appeared Quinn would easily win the Democratic nomination. But that was before the disclosure that a secret early release program for prison inmates had included some violent offenders. It also was before his opponent, Comptroller Dan Hynes, introduced an ad featuring old footage of the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington — a revered figure to many black voters — harshly criticizing Quinn.

Quinn responded by linking Hynes, whose office regulates cemetery finances, to the scandal at a historic black cemetery outside Chicago where bodies were double-stacked in graves or simply dumped in the weeds. He alleged Hynes ignored the atrocities at Burr Oak Cemetery, the resting place of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and other prominent African-Americans, because he lacks "human decency."

Democratic voter Rich Hammer, 58, said he wasn't excited about either candidate. But the unemployed Chicago resident decided against voting for Quinn because he served as lieutenant governor when Blagojevich was in power. Hammer said that association, "albeit innocent," tainted Quinn.

There were no early reports of problems at polling places, said Scott Mulford, a spokesman for the state attorney general's office. The office has 166 teams visiting polling places throughout Illinois, he said.

The Republican candidates for governor also attacked each other at times, but most of their exchanges focused on who was most adamantly opposed to raising taxes. Polls suggested the top contenders were state Sen. Kirk Dillard, businessman Andy McKenna and former Attorney General Jim Ryan.

Republicans believe they have a strong shot at the governor's mansion because both Democratic candidates are proposing income tax increases and because Democrats have been so tainted by Blagojevich's arrest and impeachment.

The Blagojevich scandal could play into the Senate race, too. The incumbent, Roland Burris, chose not to run because Blagojevich appointed him to the seat, sullying his reputation so badly that he could find little political support.

But the Democrats vying to replace Burris have their own troubles. Alexi Giannoulias, the leader in the polls, has limited experience — a single term as state treasurer and a job at a family bank that's now in financial trouble. Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson is a former Blagojevich aide. David Hoffman, former Chicago inspector general, is an unknown to most voters.

Republican leaders rallied around Mark Kirk, a five-term member of Congress and an officer in the Naval Reserve, as their choice for the party nomination. Although some Republicans hotly argued that Kirk wasn't sufficiently conservative, there was little evidence any of his opponents were catching on with voters.