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January 22, 2009

Burris could be challenged by Obama ally

One of President Obama’s close friends and basketball buddies is considering a campaign against Sen. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) in the Democratic primary.

Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias is holding conversations with leading Illinois Democrats in preparation for a possible candidacy, according to a Democratic operative familiar with his decision-making process.

“He’s been talking to a lot of Democrats in Illinois who believe that this seat is gone is if Burris is the nominee. If it’s Mark Kirk or a rich Republican, we’ve got to hold this seat. That’s enough to encourage him to take a very serious look,” said the operative.

At 32, Giannoulias has been on the fast track in Illinois politics since leaving his job as a bank vice president to run for state treasurer in 2006. Inspired by Obama’s Senate campaign, he ran against the Democratic candidate backed by the party establishment and, aided by Obama’s endorsement, prevailed.

He considers Obama to be his political mentor and was a frequent participant at Obama’s pickup basketball games during the presidential primary. (He played professional basketball in Greece.)

A Giannoulias candidacy would put Obama in a difficult position. Would he endorse the incumbent, the only African-American in the Senate? Would he support his close friend? Or would he stay out of the race completely?

“He’s not looking for permission or smoke signals from the president,” the operative said. “But if the president felt strongly that he not run, that opinion would get heard.”

Giannoulias would be able to partially self-finance campaign, a significant asset. Burris has to begin raising money from scratch, and it’s unclear how much money he can raise if he wants to run for election.

Burris’ seating has been shrouded in controversy since scandal-plagued Gov. Rod Blagojevich appointed him to the Senate, and he is seen as highly vulnerable if he runs for reelection. But if Burris runs for election against Giannoulias in 2010, a primary challenge could quickly divide along racial lines.

Other Democratic candidates previously mulling a Senate campaign are not likely to run against Burris. State Comptroller Dan Hynes isn’t expected to run, and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) may not want to give up a safe House seat to run in a competitive primary.

Giannoulias had previously been rumored to be more interested in the governor’s race, and there was speculation that he would challenge Attorney General Lisa Madigan in a competitive primary.

The operative said that he is still considering all options — including running for re-election as treasurer – but is now leaning towards running for the Senate.