Illinois Democrats worry about losing Senate seat.

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WASHINGTON — About a year ago, thousands jammed Grant Park in Chicago to celebrate Barack Obama’s election to the White House, a communal civic defining moment. But those giddy days are long gone as Democrats in Illinois face the potential of losing the Senate seat President Obama once held next November.

The Illinois primary is Feb. 2, and the Democrat and Republican races are ripening, with the deadlines to file or withdraw nominating petitions now passed.

Democratic Party leaders in Washington — and the Obama White House — failed to recruit a candidate strong enough to scare Rep. Mark Kirk — the Republicans’ best bet — from the race. The only luck they had was the decision by Sen. Roland Burris — appointed by now-indicted former Gov. Rod Blagojevich to fill Obama’s remaining term — not to run to keep the seat.

The chairman of the Democratic Party of Illinois — Michael J. Madigan, the speaker of the Illinois House — is the father of Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who rebuffed Obama and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee when they wooed her for the Senate. Papa Madigan, more concerned with keeping his state House majority, doesn’t really care who the senator is.

A look at the leading Democratic and GOP Senate candidates:

Alexi Giannoulias is the Democratic front-runner. His main competitors are Cheryle Jackson, the former Chicago Urban League chief and former Blagojevich spokeswoman; former City of Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman, and attorney Jacob Meister, who is a factor only because he put more than $1 million of his own cash into the race. With days lost to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s, well, it’s practically voting day already.

The money: As of Sept. 30, federal reports show Giannoulias has $2.4 million on hand. Hoffman has $836,957 (which includes $500,000 he lent to his campaign). Jackson has $317,828.

Name recognition: Giannoulias is the only one — Democrat or Republican — who has run statewide. Hoffman, Jackson and Meister have never run for elected office.

The endorsements: Giannoulias locked up labor support. Hoffman has a string of endorsements from North Shore state lawmakers who like his good-government and ethics messages. Jackson has prominent African-American elected officials and the feminist EMILY’s List on her side.

The base vote: Meister is looking for a gay and Jewish base. Giannoulias’ base will include labor, many city wards, county chairmen, Greek Americans and some support Downstate. Hoffman’s base is the North Shore suburbs, Jews, and wards in Chicago with a lot of police and firefighters.

Jackson’s base includes females and African Americans. Burris is the Senate’s only black member.

The minus: Giannoulias’ potential biggest liability is his former association with Broadway Bank, founded by his father and the subject of controversy because of loans made to alleged mobsters and convicted influence peddler Tony Rezko.

Hoffman’s minus is lack of name recognition and money. Jackson’s Achilles’ heel is Blagojevich. Meister’s minus: He’s unknown.

On the GOP side:

The money: Kirk has $2.3 million to $340,048 for Hinsdale real estate developer Patrick Hughes (including $250,000 of his own money). The others on the ballot have a few thousand dollars.

Name recognition: Kirk, a veteran lawmaker from the North Shore 10th District, is a favorite of editorial boards. He’s running a stealth primary campaign, however, refusing to disclose a political schedule. So far it has worked.

Endorsements: Kirk has GOP establishment in Washington and Illinois. Hughes hits Washington on Tuesday to seek backing from conservative groups, hoping to catch a conservative wave, similar to a New York House contest where the moderate Republican was forced out by conservatives.

Kirk, billed as a moderate, was caught up in a controversy last week when news leaked out that he solicited Sarah Palin for support.

Minus and plus: For Kirk, running to the right, a plus for the primary and a minus — maybe — in the general election.

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