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Ditka considering replacing Ryan on ticket

CHICAGO -- In a measure of the Illinois Republican Party's
desperation and Chicago's devotion to Da Bears, a movement is afoot
to draft the team's brash, tough-talking former coach Mike Ditka to
run for the U.S. Senate.

Ditka, a Hall of Famer who led the team to the 1986 Super Bowl
and now spends most of his time on TV as a football analyst as well as a
pitchman for a casino and an impotence drug, has said it is an
exciting idea, but he has not made up his mind.

"I've talked to some people but that's about all I've done,"
Ditka said Tuesday night at his Chicago restaurant, where he met
with state GOP chairwoman Judy Baar Topinka.

Topinka didn't talk to reporters after the meeting but Ditka,
who said he still hasn't decided about a run, described it as "a
good meeting, it was a great meeting."

What started out almost as a lark has become a real possibility
to the Illinois Republican Party, which has been unable to find
anyone of stature who wants the Senate nomination.

The GOP is still without a candidate nearly three weeks after
Jack Ryan dropped out over embarrassing allegations in his divorce
papers that he took his wife, "Boston Public" actress Jeri Ryan,
to sex clubs before they split up.

The party's top choices have refused to run, leaving GOP leaders
scrambling to find a replacement with the money and recognition to
beat state Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic rising star, with less
than four months to go before the election.

Ditka is "the ideal candidate," said state Sen. Dave Syverson,
a member of the Republican State Central Committee that will choose
the new Senate nominee.

"The public is really tired of the slick politicians. They're
tired of sound bites. They're tired of trial lawyers running
government," he said. "The fact that he's blunt and honest and
represents ordinary people, I think he could shake up the dinosaurs
in Washington."

Even some federal officeholders say they'd welcome a Ditka
candidacy.

"I think Da Coach would be a great U.S. senator, and I'd love
to see him on the floor of the United States Senate," said GOP
Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, whose retirement is creating the open seat.
"The question I would have is: Would he want to give up the
wonderful life he enjoys now to take on the chores of being a
public servant and having 12.6 million bosses?"

He would just be walking onto another gridiron, said Sen. John
McCain, R-Ariz.

"I'd say, 'Mike, you've had several bruising experiences in
your life. Be prepared for another one,' " McCain said.

Off the field, Ditka is well known as a conservative Republican.
In 2000, he warmed up a crowd for then-candidate George W. Bush by
saying the W "stands for women. I believe women want a man for
president of the United States."

If he ran for Senate, Ditka could energize the Republican base
as well as independent voters, and possibly put Illinois back into
play for Bush, Fitzgerald said.

Ditka, 64, said a potential run is very much on his mind, even
though his wife, Diana, has been telling the media: "I wouldn't
bet on it."

Ditka said Tuesday the choice was his: "I'll make the final
decision-making."

Thousands of fans have weighed on the draftditka.com Web
site -- created to urge Ditka to become the state's GOP chairman but
transformed into a Ditka-for-Senate movement.

Even Gov. Rod Blagojevich, a Democrat, thinks Ditka would be a
good choice, though he predicted Obama will win no matter who runs
against him in November.

Blagojevich noted Ronald Reagan and Arnold Schwarzenegger made
the transition from movies to politics, and former sports stars
have done the same. "If they can do it, Mike Ditka can do it,"
Blagojevich said.

But Ditka, who recently joined ESPN as an NFL analyst, could
lose his endorsement deals if elected. He also has a new clothing
line and his restaurant. He said he plans to decide on a Senate run
by the end of the week.

Mike Lawrence, interim director of the Public Policy Institute
at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, said the GOP's
fascination with Ditka is understandable.

"In some respects, the Republicans are in the position where it
looks as if they're going to have to throw a Hail Mary here," he
said, "and Mike Ditka was an All-Pro end."