William Daley would appear to be a shoo-in.

The former U.S. Commerce secretary and current Midwest chairman of J.P. Morgan Chase has started telling those close to him that he has his eyes on the Senate seat now held by Roland Burris, and, with the current tenant dragged down by scandals that have all but discounted him from reelection in 2010, there appears to be a power vacuum in Illinois. While the Daleys have dominated Chicago politics for much of the last 50 years, none has ever run for statewide office.

Leering at the 2010 Senate race from The Atlantic's office in Washington, DC, a Daley bid would appear to be game over, wrapping up the 2010 contest for what has become the most controversial Senate seat in the county--the one formerly held by the president of the United States--in one fell swoop. But if there's one thing the nation has learned about Illinois politics in the last several months, as if it didn't know before, it's that the game is always more complicated than it first appears.

Daley has the national profile and the family name. He held a Cabinet post under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001. He's the son of legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, who held that office for 20 years, and his brother, Richard M. Daley, the city's current mayor, controls the family's vast political machine. He has fundraising contacts in the state and outside of it. He served as a national co-chairman of President Obama's 2008 campaign. On top of that, should he announce, Daley will have some top political talent working for him: according to a source close to Daley, he has recruited veteran Chicago operative and former senior Obama advisor Larry Grisolano, who now heads the firm David Axelrod founded, as well as John Anzalone, who conducted a large portion of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's polling in the 2008 cycle.

So is Daley the odds-on favorite, even though he's not in the race yet? Will the Daley machine catapult one of its own to the Senate, and will 2010 bring expanded power for the family?

Political insiders in Illinois say it's not that simple.

"The dance floor's kind of crowded," Paul Green, a professor at Roosevelt University and a political analyst for WGN radio, told me.

State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, who has launched an exploratory committee and has begun raising money for a potential bid, is perhaps the most threatening. An up-and-comer, Giannoulias became Illinois' youngest state Treasurer at the age of 30 in 2006. He's got solid financial backing in the Greek community. Although the White House is likely to stay as far away from the primary as possible, Giannoulias is much closer to the president than Daley is (the two have played basketball together for years). Importantly, Giannoulias has carried a statewide election, while Daley hasn't. And the girls call him "Sexy Lexi."

Other top Democratic candidates could include state Comptroller Daniel Hynes, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (who could command significant backing from progressives in the state), and Cheryle Jackson, president of the Chicago Urban League. On the Republican side, a run from moderate Reps. Mark Kirk or Peter Roskam could draw significant statewide support. The only poll conducted so far does not include Daley's name. On the Democratic side, it shows Giannoulias and Hynes essentially splitting the vote with 28% and 26% respectively, with Burris clocking in at 5% and 25% undecided. Kirk and Roskam collected 26% and 21%, respectively, on the GOP side.

"If [Daley] runs, he'll have three tigers waiting to jump out at him," Green told me. "They're all ambitious, they're all hungry, and they can all raise money." Those three would be in Giannoulias, Hynes, and Attorney General Lisa Madigan, whose rumored gubernatorial candidacy may crowd out other statewide candidates when it comes to fundraising and status.

"It would be tougher for him," one Illinois strategist told me of Daley. "Alexi has thrown his hat in the ring and started out on the best foot forward. He's already raising money. For Bill Daley to get in at this point, he's going to start out from behind."

And, of course, there's the name--a plus in the world of Chicago fundraising, but a potential minus downstate.

"The Daley name can also cost you in some ways," Prof. Alan Gitelson, poli sci professor at Loyola University in Chicago told me. "It can provide at least a hesitation mark in the success of any candidate."

"There's a visceral anti-Chicago sentiment that runs through Republican politics and independents [downstate], and everyone's really sensitive about corruption issues right now," Kent Redfield, a professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield said.

"Because of his name, and his brother being the mayor, he is not going to be able to distance himself, whereas Giannoulias is viewed as independent and as an opponent of Blagojevich," Redfield said, referencing Giannoulias' initiatives as treasurer geared at saving money and improving ethics.

Consensus is that, for now, Daley and Giannoulias are the top contenders, but that it's too early to say who'll prevail. A strong African American candidate could split the Chicago vote and open things up for a Democrat with wider statewide appeal. Likewise, it's been suggested that Chicago's bid for the 2016 Olympics could alter the landscape: if Chicago is awarded the bid this October, Mayor Richard Daley will likely run for two more terms--and would likely tap his fundraising network for the Olympic preparations--which could put a strain on the machine's ability to support a William Daley Senate candidacy. Others disagree.

The only thing certain at this point: when it comes to raising the $20 million and majority statewide support needed to become Illinois' next junior senator, there are several candidates with the clout to do it.

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