CHICAGO -- Whenever a Republican presidential candidate looks at Illinois, he naturally casts a worried eye at the Windy City, where the Democrats traditionally run up an awesome vote that must be countered in the suburbs and downstate.
In one of the state's most fabled political stories, Richard Nixon in 1960 lost Illinois to John Kennedy by a mere 8,858 votes out of nearly 2.4 million, leading to allegations of fraud in the vote-counting in Chicago. Nixon declined to press the charges because, he said later in one of his nobler moments, doing so would have created damaging uncertainty about the country's new leadership.
This year, Chicago once again is expected to produce a fat Democratic majority for Gov. Bill Clinton. Not only is Mayor Richard M. Daley strongly in his corner, but the presence on the Democratic ticket of Carol Moseley Braun seeking to become the first black woman in the U.S. Senate should swell the solidly Democratic black vote.
But President Bush has substantial reason to worry not only about what happens in Chicago but in the suburbs and downstate as well, where the prospects for a Republican vote high enough to overcome the Democratic bulge in Chicago are at best shaky.
Part of the reason is the same issue that plagues Bush everywhere else -- the state of the economy. White-collar suburbanites are feeling the pinch or at least the threat of it in the actual or potential loss of jobs from layoffs or the moving of large employers out of the state or the country.
Reagan Democrats who left their party in 1980 and stayed with the Republicans in the next two elections are, as in other states, sounding like they're ready to "come home." Bill Daley, brother of the mayor and state director of the Clinton campaign, says the flirtation that began under Ronald Reagan has withered under George Bush as the economic situation has stagnated.
"They're saying, 'Maybe we're not Republicans. We aren't ever going to make it to Kennebunkport,' " Daley says. "The image of the Democratic Party has been improved, for which Clinton TC deserves a lot of credit. We're not seen as the crazies they thought we'd become."
Also, Daley says, job losses in the Cook County (Chicago) suburbs and the five "collar counties" around Chicago have produced a change in attitudes. "A government [unemployment compensation] check is not as negative a thing as it used to be," he says. "Standing in line for an unemployment check is not as different in DuPage County [heavily GOP suburban] as it is on Halsted Street [in Chicago]."
Gene Reineke, the Bush campaign's state executive director, insists, however, that the president is holding onto these voters, especially in suburban ethnic communities where he is credited with helping bring about the liberation from communism of their Eastern European home countries. He offers as evidence a big and enthusiastic turnout for Bush in a Polish-American community over the Labor Day weekend.
Reineke notes that the Illinois unemployment rate of 6.7 percent is below the national average and Illinois is second only to North ++ Carolina with the lowest rate in any industrial state. But Eric Adelstein, Daley's campaign deputy, says the recent end of a strike at one huge plant, Caterpillar in Peoria, is largely responsible, and that downstate some towns are suffering double-digit unemployment.
Beyond that, says David Axelrod, a Chicago media consultant working for Clinton, the Arkansas governor's cultural affinity with southern Illinois, whose farm and rural makeup resembles the South itself, is making him competitive in this traditionally Republican area.
So once again, as in other states, Bush is obliged at this late stage of the campaign to focus on shoring up his base. Reineke says he hopes to have the president back to work that base again before Nov. 3.
Bush, who narrowly beat Michael Dukakis in Illinois in 1988, trailed Clinton by a whopping 20 percentage points -- 46 percent to 26 percent, with 7 percent for Ross Perot, in the Chicago Tribune poll published last Sunday. Everything seems to depend here, therefore, on how the president fares in the approaching debates.