Sweet Column: Topinka survives.

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SHARE Sweet Column: Topinka survives.

A revealing behind-the-scenes look at Judy Baar Topinka on election day.

Topinka survives primary, but race will be brutal

March 22, 2006


It’s Tuesday afternoon and I’m watching GOP governor hopeful Judy Baar Topinka, the state treasurer, rehearse her victory speech in the ballroom of the Swissotel on Wacker Drive.

Topinka is not being presumptuous.

It’s just that she’s never used a TelePrompTer before. Win or lose, she’s delivering a speech in a few hours.

It will be one that Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s team will need to pay attention to whether or not Topinka is the Republican nominee.

Topinka’s staff prevailed on her to at least try the TelePrompTer because to the television audience she will look more gubernatorial.

“I’m never going to get this down,” she says to no one in particular as she squints at the words flowing past her on glassy screens flanking the podium.

“I really don’t like this.” She thinks her speech is way too long.

Some of her staffers watch the practice, including Roger Germann, a speechwriter; David Loveday, a spokesman; and Nancy Kimmee, her top strategist on leave from her chief of staff position at the treasurer’s office. Many of the aides carry white binders, filled each day of the primary season with fresh briefing papers.

Tuesday’s primary decides whether there are Wednesday pages.

Topinka is nervous. She’s a little tired.

She was up before 5 a.m., went to vote and then returned home in west suburban Riverside to go back to bed.

Breakfast was leftover apple strudel. Lunch, Chinese takeout someone dropped off.

She’s wearing a suit, a Jones New York jacket and skirt. She has on loafers, because ever since a mangled bunion surgery she’s had a hard time with pumps.

I think I notice something. Her suit looks new.

New as in not worn before, not just newly bought. A staffer picked it out for Topinka on Monday at Field’s. Topinka, the thrift store secondhand queen, was painfully forced under the time pressures of the campaign to buy new and pay retail.

‘This is a little bigger’

She’s trying to stay calm.

“This is a little bigger than stuff we usually do,” she tells me as she sips caffeinated coffee, black, from a straw. “It has me a little edgy. So I have to keep a little more calm.”

The primary ended with Topinka taking negative fire. There’s a GOP unity breakfast set for this morning (at the aptly named W Hotel) where everyone is supposed to make up and move ahead to the general election race against Blagojevich.

Topinka’s main rivals were millionaires who bankrolled their bids: dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, who also runs an investment fund; business mogul and civic leader Ron Gidwitz; and state Sen. Bill Brady (R-Bloomington).

Collectively, they got to her.

Mission: Topple Blagojevich

“I was really amazed at how mean, I suppose, my opponents could be in terms of character assassination and making things up and just saying absolutely anything,” she says. “There was just no restraint whatsoever.”

What has she learned about herself during the race?

“That I am very resilient,” she says. “Very resilient, and that basically I have a peace within myself in that I don’t need rewards.”

If she is the GOP nominee, Topinka tells me early on Tuesday, she plans a frontal assault on Blagojevich in her victory speech. He’s had his chance, she’s going to say. It’s time for him to go.

If she falls short, she says, she’ll wing her speech. “If I have to say goodbye,” she says, “it will be from the heart.”

But a long day is followed by a long evening. And much later, well into a see-saw election night, when Topinka finally does step before the cameras, she salvages only a single line from her rehearsed speech. And even this she delivers with a new spin: “Give Rod his retirement papers.”

November showdown

By the time you read this, the November campaign for governor will have roared to life.

This morning, Blagojevich is booked on the morning television shows. Then he heads to a Northwest Side fence company for a press conference.

Blagojevich’s re-election strategy calls for making abortion a centerpiece issue of the fall campaign. And, given that, it’s telling where he spent election eve Monday night: at a home in Evanston, at a fund-raiser sponsored for him by Planned Parenthood of Illinois and Personal PAC, a political action committee that supports abortion rights.

Get ready. The months ahead will be brutal.

Lynn Sweet is the Washington bureau chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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