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The U.S. Senate campaign

Winning Ugly

Democratic U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley-Braun and GOP challenger Peter Fitzgerald could both come away from this race caked with mud. The winner could turn out to be the one who can crawl out from under the debris of this campaign alive

by Mike Robinson

They used to say the Chicago White Sox won a lot of games but won them ugly. The expression may be back in style this fall as Illinois goes into the final four weeks of one of the most closely watched U.S. Senate races in the nation.

"This campaign is probably going to get very ugly," Democrat Carol Moseley-Braun said last summer as she launched her race for a second six-year term. "It's probably going to get very nasty."

And it has. Moseley-Braun calls her Republican opponent, Peter Fitzgerald, too extreme for Illinois' moderate brand of politics. "He's trying to keep secret his extreme record on guns, education and women's rights," she declares. Meanwhile, Fitzgerald takes advantage of controversies that dog Moseley-Braun's 1992 campaign fund and continuing criticism of her visits with a brutal Nigerian dictator.

To now, Republicans have been having a field day while Moseley-Braun, the first African-American woman elected to the U.S. Senate, plays defense.

A syndicated column last month by conservative national pundit George Will, detailing every allegation made about Moseley-Braun's political and personal affairs, had her sputtering that the commentator "can just take his hood and go back where he came from," an apparent reference to the Ku Klux Klan. She later apologized.

In fact, Moseley-Braun's genuine accomplishments on Capitol Hill stand a good chance of being obliterated in the minds of voters by an orgy of name-calling and finger-pointing. And the 37-year-old Fitzgerald could come away caked with mud as well. In fact, the winner could turn out to be the one who can crawl out from under the debris of this campaign.

Illinois is one of a handful of battlegrounds where Republicans could pick up seats November 3 in the quest for a veto-proof Senate majority. For their part, the Democrats just want to stem their losses. So both parties are watching from Washington and may - if last-minute polls show the race close - contribute to the mayhem, along with groups representing both sides of the abortion issue and organizations representing other special interests.

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That's likely. In mid-September a Chicago Sun-Times/News 2 poll had Fitzgerald leading Moseley-Braun with 50 percent to 35 percent. Another 12 percent were undecided.

Moseley-Braun, 51, has posted real achievements in Washington. She won fairer pension rights for divorced women and those whose husbands served in the military. She crusaded for $5 billion to rebuild America's "crumbling schools"-an idea that got as far as the Rose Garden where President Bill Clinton embraced it. The measure was dropped in 1997 budget negotiations, but Moseley-Braun gets credit for using the bully pulpit to good advantage and was thrown a bone: $14 million to turn a South Side armory into a Chicago Public Schools military academy.

Moseley-Braun also backed such Illinois businesses as the Chicago commodities trading floors and the Decatur-based Archer Daniels Midland Co., which gets a tax break for producing ethanol. The corn-based alcohol fuel is a sacred cow for Illinois corn growers. She also resisted intense pressure from labor and voted for the tariff-lowering North America Free Trade Agreement.

In the Democratic Cloakroom, Moseley-Braun pulled off the kind of coup in which Chicago politicians excel. Waiting until the last minute, she backed South Dakota's Tom Daschle for minority leader over Connecticut's Christopher Dodd. Daschle gave her his seat on the powerful, tax-writing Senate Finance Committee.

That post guarantees that neither the administration nor antagonistic senators can trifle with Moseley-Braun and may provide the leverage to get pork barrel projects. "It adds value for my state," she says.

The rivals collide head-on over emotionally charged social issues.

Moseley-Braun, the daughter of a South Side police officer and a medical technician, opposed the sweeping 1996 overhaul of the nation's welfare system that imposed deadlines for getting jobs or job training.

"We formerly had a safety net in this country that was supposed to mean that no child would be reduced to absolute poverty," she says. "And while we don't have that anymore and while I'm delighted that welfare-to-work has been as successful as it is, at the same time, I'm concerned that if the economy were to turn around, I think we'd have some children at risk."

Fitzgerald, whose father founded a group of suburban banks, would offer "more hope and growth for those people and I think the way to do that is to take advantage of opportunities that are available to them."

"Just giving them a handout is not the best thing," Fitzgerald adds.

His mantra on crime: She voted three times against setting mandatory tough sentences for criminals who use guns, and against shutting off food stamps for convicted felons. "Ask the average man or woman on the street what they think of those positions, and I think they would tell you they're extreme," he says.

Moseley-Braun, a University of Chicago Law School graduate and former federal prosecutor, says mandatory sentences strip judges of their capacity to apply discretion. "Judges should sentence criminals, not politicians," she says, adding that shutting off food stamps for felons would merely penalize their families.

The challenger hints he'll take her up on that point in the next phase of his television advertising. "This election is a referendum on the incumbent, on her votes and on her judgment," declares Fitzgerald, who spent $7 million, largely borrowed funds, in beating state Comptroller Loleta Didrickson in the primary. Even before Labor Day he had reserved an estimated $4 million more in television time.

Moseley-Braun winces at what's to come. "He's going to try to appeal to every negative emotion he can find," she says. "He can't criticize me for my positions and policies, so he's going to pull out the old character attack."

Fitzgerald is unsympathetic: "And obviously it's a marvelous irony that Carol Moseley-Braun would argue in 1992 that character is an issue but in 1998 that it's not."

The No. 1 character in any character attack would plainly be General Sani Abacha, a repressive

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Nigerian dictator who sent a number of his critics to the gallows and won the disdain of human rights activists worldwide before dying last June.

Moseley-Braun's August 1996 visit with Abacha is a favorite topic with Republicans. She acknowledges seven trips to Nigeria, two as a senator. The 1996 sojourn, she says, was to console the general's wife, whom she had met on a previous trip, over the loss of their son in an air crash.

Moseley-Braun calls the cascade of criticism unfair. She says many members of Congress have hobnobbed with dictators and that California Sen. Dianne Feinstein was visiting China when she was in Nigeria. She scoffs at complaints that the trip seemed secretive and that senators should clear such travel with the State Department. Be that as it may, the image of Moseley-Braun on friendly terms with a blood-tainted dictator could raise doubts among her base of independent female voters.

Moseley-Braun's other headache has been multiple questions raised about her 1992 campaign fund. Not long after the election, former campaign treasurer Earl Hopewell filed suit against her, charging that he had been fired for asking too many questions. Hopewell's suit also raised allegations that money from the campaign fund had been spent on Giorgio Armani clothes, jewelry, vacations and other items.

A Federal Election Commission investigation of the fund ended inconclusively. Then in July, the Justice Department confirmed a report on Chicago's WBBM-TV that the Internal Revenue Service had requested a grand jury investigation of both Moseley-Braun and her campaign manager Kgosie Matthews involving personal use of $281,000.

The Justice Department rejected the request on grounds of insufficient evidence. "I hope this drives a stake into that Dracula's heart," Moseley-Braun says.

But questions about her relationship with her manager don't seem to die. Matthews became Moseley-Braun's fiance in 1992. The engagement ended in 1994, the same year he was registered as a lobbyist for Nigeria, according to news reports. A Washington travel agent is still trying to collect $250,000 in bills from Matthews, who has since left the country. Moseley-Braun says he phones her sometimes but that she doesn't know where he lives.

"She fell in love with the wrong guy," says Illinois' former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, a Democrat and a supporter. That may be. But Fitzgerald's opposition researchers and media consultants have been scraping up every juicy allegation to throw at Moseley-Braun.

But, then, she hasn't been idle either. If the election is to be a referendum on Sani Abacha and trouble with campaign funds, Moseley-Braun has a rugged trek back to Capitol Hill. Democrats don't think it has to be that way. And they're starting with Fitzgerald's record.

Fitzgerald is a veteran of six years in the state Senate, during which he has crusaded against giving riverboat gambling casino licenses and state loans to cronies of the powerful. He has also been a staunch critic of high taxes. When Republican Gov. Jim Edgar proposed a potential state income tax increase to provide strapped school districts with more money, Fitzgerald declared: "I will oppose it with every ounce of strength in my body." He also sponsored legislation that outlawed same-sex marriage in Illinois. And he would ban gays from the military.

But Moseley-Braun is betting two other Fitzgerald positions will do her more good when the candidates start burning and slashing: abortion and guns.

Independent women voters propelled Moseley-Braun to the Senate and have represented a crucial swing bloc in Illinois ever since. They may represent 3 percent to 4 percent of the vote, says Evanston-based pollster Richard Day. "That's huge," he says, when it can boost the winning margin. Although those women may not have a uniform opinion on abortion, almost all of them favor the strongest possible gun control. They also are strong supporters of programs to provide education.

Tying Fitzgerald's name in the minds of voters to any return to the era of back-alley abortions and frontier-style gun control could make it tough on him. And that's exactly what Moseley-Braun is likely to do.

Anti-abortion forces estimate 200,000 Illinois voters cast their ballots on that issue alone. "Fitzgerald will get virtually all of them," says Tom Roeser, a conservative Republican and chairman of Family Political Action Committee. But Terry Cosgrove, head of pro-choice Personal PAC, says his group has identified 275,000 voters who will turn out to oppose abortion limits. Fitzgerald, educated under the eyes of Benedictine monks, would outlaw all abortions except to save the life of the mother, making no exception for rape or incest. That could sway independent women voters now having doubts about Moseley-Braun.

In addition, Fitzgerald supports the Brady waiting period for handgun buyers and the federal ban on semiautomatic assault rifles. What Illinois gun owners want most these days, though, is legalization of concealed weapons. Fitzgerald has voted for it. He says many states already have it and night workers such as nurses would like firearms legalized. Under the plan he supports, they would have to pass a state police training course before getting carry permits. "I'm sure that we'll support Fitzgerald," says James Valentino, president of the Illinois State Rifle Association.

But that support could cost votes among women. Maybe enough to turn Moseley-Braun's luck around. "Anytime you put guns around kids, voters hate it," says Democratic political consultant Peter Giangreco. "If this thing is going to be a referendum on abortion and concealed carry, he's dead meat."

Illinois voters may have been looking forward to a clean finish in this campaign, but it looks like the candidates may slide into election day with the dust flying and their spikes in the air. 

Mike Robinson is a reporter for The Associated Press.

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