SPRINGFIELD -- Steve Rauschenberger took his name out of the running to replace Jack Ryan as the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate on Thursday, leaving the GOP scrambling to come up with a name for the fall ballot.
Rauschenberger, a veteran state senator, was the latest in a string of potential candidates to reject the prospect of starting late in what promises to be a tough, expensive campaign against Democrat Barack Obama.
Republican leaders are left with few possibilities, among them businessman James Oberweis, who finished second to Ryan in the March primary but alienated many with his attacks on illegal immigrants, and Andrea Grubb Barthwell, the Bush administration's deputy drug czar but an unknown in Illinois.
That has some party leaders hoping they can change Rauschenberger's mind and others dreaming of someone entirely different -- former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka.
"Mike Ditka would be a great candidate because he represents the average Illinoisan. He's just a decent, ordinary guy that worked hard and wasn't handed anything but made it successful," said state Sen. Dave Syverson of Rockford, a member of the Republican State Central Committee.
Even Rauschenberger praised Ditka as a possible candidate, although no one seemed to know whether he was even interested in the job. Messages left for Ditka on Thursday through his restaurant were not immediately returned.
Rauschenberger wanted the Republican nomination but decided he couldn't come up with the millions of dollars needed to compete against Obama.
"In a lot of ways, I wish it could have been me. I just couldn't," he said.
Rauschenberger said he could have raised the money if he had started earlier, but many in Washington have already written off Illinois. "The people who work on helping raise money and donate to races ... are already gone," he said.
Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, whose retirement created the vacancy Republicans are trying to fill, said he sympathizes with Rauschenberger's decision not to launch a campaign just four months before Election Day.
"I think Steve's prospects are bright," Fitzgerald said. "He certainly would make a formidable candidate for governor of the state of Illinois in 2006, and hopefully that's what he's saving himself for."
Ryan, a millionaire investment banker-turned-teacher, dropped out of the race two weeks ago, saying the release of embarrassing sex club allegations in his now-public divorce records would detract from the issues. He has yet to file the paperwork to formally remove his name from the ballot, however.
Top Republicans, including former Gov. Jim Edgar and state party chairman Judy Baar Topinka, declined to take Ryan's place on the ballot. Wealthy businessmen Ronald Gidwitz and Andy McKenna also said they weren't interested.
That brought party leaders to Rauschenberger, an Elgin resident who finished third in the primary.
U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert called him "the best person" for the job Thursday morning and promised to do everything he could do to help Rauschenberger. Less than two hours later, though, Rauschenberger announced he was out.
Asked later who he would back now, Hastert replied: "You know what, I'm back to square one. I don't know."
Rep. Mark Kirk's reaction was: "Ditka, Ditka, Ditka. We're taking a long look at him."
But Ditka has not approached the party about running, said John Hoffman, executive director of the Illinois Republican Party.
Others said they want Rauschenberger to reconsider.
"He's clearly our candidate that best lines up against Barack Obama, and I hope that economics doesn't keep him from running for the U.S. Senate," said state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, a member of the Republican State Central Committee.
Barthwell hasn't spoken publicly about a candidacy because federal laws prevent it, but friend and adviser John Fluharty said she talked Thursday with the Bush administration and with family and friends about resigning to run for the Senate. She is likely to decide by Friday, he said.
If Barthwell were the nominee, it would be the first time two black candidates squared off in a U.S. Senate race, experts said.
Obama, meanwhile, played down the advantage of having no opponent, saying the eventual Republican nominee will get a flurry of publicity that will help even things out.
"By the time Labor Day rolls around, I think we'll have the makings of what would be a normal campaign," Obama said.