TOPICS > Politics

Run to the Center

October 2, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Democrat Dick Durbin, a seven-term congressman with a liberal voting record. Republican Al Salvi, a two-term state representative with a conservative one. There’s only one thing the two candidates agree on–

STATE REP. AL SALVI, Republican Senate Candidate: This race for the U.S. Senate, you know, pits two candidates who have completely different visions for the future of this country. In fact, I would think that that’s one of the few things my opponent and I agree on.

REP. DICK DURBIN, Democratic Senate Candidate: There is no race where there’s a sharper contrast between candidates. When Al Salvi won that Republican primary and came at it from the right wing, beating the moderate candidate, Bob Custra, it really set the stage for this battle which will be decided on November the 5th.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Last March, the upset primary win of Al Salvi, then a little known state legislator, over the state’s lieutenant governor shocked the Republican Party establishment and thrilled party conservatives. Much of his support had come from Christian Coalition members, anti-abortion groups, anti-gun control advocates, and home schoolers.

CAROL ESMER, Salvi Supporter: It is unbelievable. I mean, you know, we started out as, Al said, the underdog, people stuck with him, the true conservatives.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Chicago Sun Times political columnist Steve Neal says Democrats liked the primary results too. They thought Salvi would be seen as too right wing for the state’s more moderate voters.

STEVE NEAL, Chicago Sun Times: Democrats were gloating; they were already counting this as a victory. Salvi is a very good campaigner. He’s smart, but he is very ideological also, and his record as a legislator has been as a right wing ideologue. Durbin is more of–is liberal but is more of a pragmatist.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Ever since the March primary upset, Durbin’s main campaign strategy has been to keep the extremist label pinned on Salvi.

SPOKESMAN: (commercial) Is Al Salvi too extreme for Illinois? You decide. Al Salvi wants to make assault weapons legal again. Al Salvi wants to abolish the Department of Education. And Al Salvi wants to privatize Social Security. Al Salvi’s views are too extreme for Illinois.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And in almost every stump speech, Durbin tries to link Salvi with the Newt Gingrich Congress.

REP. DICK DURBIN: And a lot of Republicans are saying, we’re Republicans but we’re not Gingrich Republicans, you know, we’re more moderate. What’s interesting is the fellow that I’m running against, this Al Salvi, does Newt Gingrich one better. Newt Gingrich wants to cut Medicare to pay for tax breaks for the wealthy. Al Salvi thinks that’s such a good idea he also wants to privatize Social Security. So it turns out that anything Newt can do Al can do better.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Among some moderate Republicans, Durbin’s message is getting through. Lisa Cervac says she hasn’t decided how she’ll vote because she worries that Salvi is too extreme.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: On the political spectrum, where does he land for you?

LISA CERVAC: Probably a little bit on the conservative side, but my feeling is that the country I think needs to go a little bit swing that way, and my question really boils down to, is he a little bit more conservative than I want to swing too, or is it in my comfort zone?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Al Salvi has counterattacked by painting Durbin as the extremist, a liberal extremist, particularly on the tax issue.

COMMERCIAL SPOKESMAN: This 52-year-old man is scared to death. No matter how hard he works, there’s never enough to save for retirement. That’s why it’s so tough every time Congressman Durbin votes to raise our taxes. Durbin’s voted for five of the largest tax increases in history, even voting to raise taxes on Social Security benefits. But what else would you expect from a big taxin’ and big spendin’ and pay grabbin’ liberal like Durbin?

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Salvi’s anti-tax message resonates with many voters. Republican Lisa Fasshauer says the tax issue is more important to her than any fears that Salvi may be too extreme.

LISA FASSHAUER: You know, I’m getting really tired of getting beat up on the taxes and, um, it’s costing a lot of money, you know, when you got two kids in college and a third one getting ready to go, it’s–uh, it’s very hard. It’s very hard. I’m just tired of the government taking all of our money.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: The battleground in this race is where it is in many states, suburban middle class neighborhoods, where voters, particularly women, don’t like extreme messages or extreme labels. That’s why both candidates have spent a lot of time here emphasizing a more moderate message.

AL SALVI: (ad) Earlier this year I introduced four of the best reasons why I want to be Illinois’s next senator. Now I have a fifth reason. Meet David. Like you, I’m concerned about all our children’s future.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Salvi’s ad campaign that features his five adorable children has helped to soften his image.

SPOKESMAN: He comes off on TV as a sort of reasonable, thoughtful conservative when, in fact, some of his positions are quite extreme. Salvi, like Reagan, has been able to counter that by coming off as a fairly reasonable fellow with a nice family.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In his stump speeches, Salvi avoids talking about conservative social issues and criticizes Durbin for linking him to the Newt Gingrich Congress.

AL SALVI: You know, he says, stop the Salvi-Gingrich budget. I don’t even know Newt Gingrich. (laughter in room) I mean, I’m the first state legislator, I’m the first state legislator with a federal budget named after him.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: In the last few months, Salvi has moved toward the center on some issues. The day after his primary victory, I asked him whether or not the assault weapons ban should be repealed.

AL SALVI: I think it should. It’s not doing anything. It hasn’t had any effect on crime.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Last week I asked that question again.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: So let me, let me understand it perfectly.


ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Do you or don’t you support a repeal of the assault weapons ban?

AL SALVI: I don’t think we should call for a repeal of the assault weapons ban.

SPOKESMAN: The state that will send Al Salvi to the United States Senate this November.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Salvi has picked up the support of moderate party leaders at both the state and national level. Earlier this month, Bob Dole was in Illinois stumping for votes for himself and Salvi. But while Bob Dole remains nearly 20 points behind Bill Clinton in Illinois, Salvi has moved within ten points of Durbin. Neal says by moderating his message Salvi has picked up mainstream voters without alienating his conservative base.

STEVE NEAL: And he has done a pretty good job and is in a position–I still–still it’s doubtful he can win this race, but he has made it competitive, and that’s further than many people thought he could come.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Durbin is also emphasizing a more moderate message, reaching out to fallen-away Democrats at this union rally at Carpenters Local 270.

REP. DICK DURBIN: We are now talking about changing the welfare system so that it’s fair and it gives people a chance to get a job. That’s the new Democratic Party. That’s what we’re all about. And when we go out to our friends who haven’t been with us for a long time, you can tell ’em, listen, we’ve left that back porch light on a long time, will you please come home in 1996, we need you, we need you to come home.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Two years ago, many of these voters didn’t go to the polls. For Durbin to win, he must convince them to come out this time. Union officer Margaret Blackshere.

MARGARET BLACKSHERE: I think that we made a mistake some years ago when we took on more than the pocket book and so we are returning to that. We took on whether it was choice or gun issues or school prayer, a lot of different things besides what affects us at the workplace and what affects our families.

PRESIDENT CLINTON: We need to go on and balance the budget. It means we need to have the right kind of tax cuts–

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Hoping to get a boost from Clinton’s popularity in Illinois, Durbin has been at the President’s side during his frequent visits to this critical Midwestern state, and has picked up the Clinton message as his own.

REP. DICK DURBIN: The President has proven that we can be fiscally responsible, reduce this deficit, and get the economy moving again. And I think that’s why he’s doing well.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: And are you talking about social issues versus economic issues?

REP. DICK DURBIN: Well, social issues too. I mean, we can basically talk about welfare reform, about realistically fighting crime. I mean, these are things that Democrats used to have to apologize for. We don’t have to anymore. We have really taken an honest, centrist approach to dealing with these problems.

ELIZABETH BRACKETT: Durbin and Salvi both know in a state where voters are evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats whoever captures that centrist ground has the best chance to become the state’s next Senator.