"It's been an opportunist playground," a top Republican Party official sighed last week.

Every time somebody floats his or her own name for the vacant Republican US Senate slot and then "withdraws," the media paints it as yet another disaster for the state party, the clearly annoyed official complained.

Case in point, the decision by state Sen. Kirk Dillard last week not to run.

"Rich, we never, ever believed Dillard was running," the GOP official said. "You guys let him use you for his 15 minutes of fame." Actually, that's exactly what this person has been telling me since Dillard's potential candidacy was first mentioned.

Dillard certainly got his 15 minutes. A New York Times editorial last week gushed all over the DuPage Republican: "Run, Kirk, run. Illinois needs you."

Personally, I like Sen. Dillard and I thought he could be talked into it and believed he would have been a good candidate, but, trust me on this one, the state party never thought he would pull the trigger.

As with Mike Ditka's much-celebrated "withdrawal," the Dillard announcement made headlines.

The Associated Press moved a story with this lede: "Four weeks after millionaire Jack Ryan dropped his U.S. Senate bid amid embarrassing sex club allegations, the Republican Party is back to square one in its search for a replacement. Again."

The trouble with that entertaining paragraph is that the party never considered Dillard to be a real prospect. In other words, you can't go "back" to "square one" if you never left it.

"If we were serious about them they got a call from the committee," the GOP official explained. "That hasn't happened to very many of them, including (state Sen. Steve) Rauschenberger and Dillard."

Sen. Rauschenberger, who came in third in the Republican US Senate primary, was the first to make headlines when he announced he wouldn't run. Rauschenberger's refusal to submit to the party's strict background vetting process meant he never garnered any serious interest, despite all the media hoopla.

Even twice-defeated statewide candidate Al Salvi got dragged into the "float a name, withdraw a name" game last week. Hours after his candidacy was promoted online, Salvi told the Daily Herald that he would only run if the president, himself, called.

When it came out that candidate wannabe Andrea Grubb Barthwell was slammed in a federal government investigation for "lewd and abusive behavior" towards her employees, her prospects were doomed. Believe it or not, Barthwell is still pushing her candidacy. Like Jack Ryan, Barthwell doesn't know when to quit. But if she does, expect another round of stories.

Jim Oberweis made the news, again, last week when he said he would lobby President Bush to support his candidacy. Yeah, that'll happen. The longterm goal of the Republican Party is to prevent Latinos from voting as strongly Democratic as African-Americans. And since many Latino voters have friends, relatives, neighbors, etc. who are illegal immigrants or are the children of illegal immigrants, and Oberweis spent millions on TV ads last spring attacking illegal immigrants, he's the kiss of death. Yet, almost every news item about likely candidates includes Oberweis' name. That's just ridiculous.

What about the rumor that the GOP is wooing former Chicago Bear Gary Fencik and former tennis pro Jimmy Connors? Not even close to true, the Republican official claimed. But if Fencik and Connors every say they're not interested, watch for stories about how the party was snubbed yet again.

Ditka's non-candidacy is partly to blame for this media mess. Ditka milked the national story for a week and got a lot of free publicity for his Chicago restaurant. He gave the "scoop" about his final decision to a Chicago TV station that announced the next day that he had signed on as a football analyst. Nice and tidy. Trouble is, Ditka's refusal to run was seen as a devastating blow to the party, even though Republican leaders were never convinced he'd commit.

There's no doubt the Republican Party is having trouble finding a candidate. Considering the national media circus, Barack Obama's superstar status and hefty fundraising, Jack Ryan's implosion and mysterious refusal to bow out, the overemphasis on crystal clean backgrounds, the constant public parade of people who have no intention of running or who are completely unrealistic candidates and the party's disastrous 2002 election results, it's not a big mystery why. But, they'll find somebody. In the meantime, everyone should just cool out a little.


Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at www.capitolfax.com.