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U.S. Rep. Philip Crane, R-Wauconda, in this final week of the toughest political battle of his long career in Congress, used a costumed dolphin cartoon character called "Flippy" to focus attention on opponent Melissa Bean's position on President Bush's tax cuts.
Meanwhile, supporters of Bean used a photo of Crane wearing a Hawaiian shirt and posing with a giant yellow duck at what appears to be a holiday resort to remind voters in the campaign's final days of the congressman's travels to places like Costa Rica, Antigua, Italy and Scotland.
Crane, 73, breezed through two dozen campaigns in his 35 years in Congress, routinely crushing Democrats and Republicans alike. He's fighting for survival this year, even though charges being hurled at him now were made by past opponents.
Crane got 67 percent of the vote when he defeated Bean in her first run for political office two years ago, but a lot has changed since then.
Bean, 42, a business consultant from Barrington and a mother of two, is better known today.
The 8th Congressional District, which now includes Zion, Beach Park and areas on the north side of Waukegan, is thought to be slightly less Republican than it was two years ago, even though it is still considered the most Republican of Illinois' congressional districts.
Nearly all area newspapers have endorsed Bean this year. Crane's Republican primary opponent, David Phelps of Crystal Lake, is backing her, too.
Unlike 2002, Bean has raised some big money this year, about $1.1 million, close to Crane's $1.3 million. Both campaigns are getting advertising help, too, from outside groups.
Even Republicans like House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert acknowledge the incumbent needs help.
Hastert and a host of other top Republicans, including former Congressman Jack Kemp and U.S. Rep. Don Manzullo have come into the district to help Crane. High-ranking officials in the Bush administration have come into the district with Crane to talk with local officials. Vice President Dick Cheney sponsored a fund-raiser for Crane.
Bean says a poll taken between Oct. 6 and Oct. 7 showed the race as a statistical dead heat, 46 to 44 percent with Crane leading. Crane's campaign manager said Crane's polls show he's ahead by more than that, but he wouldn't say by how much.
Smelling blood, Democrats and women's groups are pouring resources into Bean's campaign.
The glossy flier blasting Crane as "The Junket King" and picturing him with the duck and in a Hawaiian shirt, pink-and-white lei and straw holiday hat was financed by Emily's List, a political action committee that helps pro-abortion rights Democratic women.
Barack Obama, the Democratic nominee for U.S. Senate, and U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., have been campaigning for Bean in Lake County. Bean has also gotten help from former Vice President Al Gore and House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California.
Crane and Bean had just a couple of debates during the campaign, cordial affairs in Schaumburg and Round Lake in August and September. They've run into each other occasionally on the campaign trail, too.
The candidates almost literally bumped into each other Sept. 25 at the annual Farm Heritage Show at Lakewood Forest Preserve near Wauconda.
Crane was standing with a group of Lake County Board members, including Forest Preserve President Bonnie Carter, when Bean came along.
"Hello, Melissa," Crane said. "Hi, Phil," said Bean, who quickly zoomed off to greet more potential voters.
Bean had just come from an Octoberfest in Lake Zurich, Crane was informed. "I was there last night," he said. "I sang!"
Crane said he once spent time in Vienna and learned the song, Wien, Wien, nur du Allein (Vienna, Vienna, Only You Alone), which he sang at the Octoberfest. He then sang most of the song a capella for a handful of people around him until an aide pulled him away.
The politeness of the two candidates is in striking contrast to the harsh language and images of their press releases and mailers: "Taxpayers can't afford Melissa Bean's Flip-Flops," "Phil Crane voted to allow drilling for oil in Lake Michigan ... He even voted against cleaning up hazardous waste in our neighborhoods." "Melissa Bean wants to represent you but doesn't even live in your district."
Bean lived in the 8th District for 15 years until 2002 when her Barrington neighborhood was shifted into U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk's 10th District. Her home is just 1,400 feet from the 8th District.
"I was gerrymandered out," she said. "It's silly. This is my home. He lives in Virginia."
The new map also placed Crane's Democratic challenger in 2000, Lance Pressl, along with Republican Gary Skoien, who against Crane in the 1992 and 1994 primaries and David McSweeney, his 1998 primary foe, out of the Eighth District and into the 10th.
"He's trying to eliminate any challengers from the district," said Pressl at the time. "This map is as gerrymandered as they come."
Skoien was quoted as saying, "It's pretty obnoxious in this day and age to go to such lengths to preserve one man's tenure."
The Cook County area removed from Crane's district now forms a Cook County panhandle of Kirk's 10th District almost surrounded by the 8th.
Bean has passed out "Crane seat warmers" to supporters, saying the congressman has done nothing for 35 years. "Flippy," someone dressed in a dolphin costume has shown up at Bean events in behalf of Crane, claiming Bean has "flip-flopped" on issues.
While Crane is known as the most conservative congressman in Washington, not many actual issues have emerged in the campaign.
Bean doesn't even mention she's a Democrat in her mailers. With the Flippy stunts and with radio and TV ads, Crane has portrayed her as a "liberal spender" and opponent of the Bush tax cuts.
"They're lying, they're inventing things," said Brian Herman, Bean's campaign manager. "They have to say these things because Crane is desperate."
In the Schaumburg debate, Bean said the focus should be on incentives for small and medium businesses. "I haven't been critical of tax cuts," she said. "I've been critical of our tax code."
Bean has maintained Crane is a tool of corporate interests that contribute to his campaign war chest, is out-of-touch with the district and that it's time for a change.
Crane is warning voters that Bean will be a "liberal spender" and that the district can't afford to lose his seniority in a Republican-controlled Congress.
The Bean-Crane race has drawn national attention. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal noted Crane missed the Republican National Convention in August. He stayed away from New York City "to focus on something closer to home: his political survival," The Times said.
The Wall Street Journal quoted Amy Walter, who watches House races for the Cook Political Report. "If Phil Crane were not in this race, we wouldn't even be talking about it because it would be totally safe for the Republicans," she said. "He is the issue."
Crane has claimed his long tenure in Congress and GOP control of Congress gives him special clout for the district. However, Crane lost out in his campaign for chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee.