The band was playing ``Happy Days are Here Again'' at the county picnic for Democrats. And it fit. To almost everyone's surprise, their candidate for Illinois governor, Adlai Stevenson III, is back in the race.
``Everybody's talking about this campaign around here,'' says John McNeil, a Democrat and former machine setter whose plant closed.
``People are just tired of the way things are going,'' adds a Tupperware saleswoman, finishing off a plate of pork and beans at the picnic. ``They want a change.''
Six months ago, the Stevenson campaign stumbled so badly that a change seemed impossible. In the March 18 primary, his choices for lieutenant governor and secretary of state were edged out by two obscure supporters of political extremist Lyndon LaRouche. The election was an apparent fluke, but Stevenson refused to run on the same ticket. Forming a third party took months of legal maneuvering. In the meantime, Stevenson was injured when he fell off a horse.
``The party was demoralized. I was given no chance of winning, so the money dried up,'' Stevenson recalls of those dark months. ``It was a difficult time. But in a strange way, it's working to our advantage. We're given credit for persevering against adversity.''
Political observers agree. ``The fact that he's still in the game is amazing,'' says Paul M. Green, director of the public policy institute at Governors State University. ``No entity has taken more direct hits since the German World War II battleship Bismarck was sunk.''
But observers remain skeptical that Stevenson can win. ``It's still problematic,'' says John S. Jackson, political science professor at Southern Illinois University. ``The [Democratic] party has got its work cut out for it.''
The race pits the well-known Stevenson name (his great grandfather was vice-president; his father ran against President Eisenhower twice) against Gov. James R. Thompson, the 10-year Republican incumbent who narrowly defeated Stevenson four years ago. The Republican leads by 10 percentage points or more in the most recent polls.
On this particular day of campaigning, the thin, balding Stevenson gives his pitch at a fundraiser in Chester, Ill. Instead of punching one button to vote a straight Democratic ticket, he tells voters they will have to punch three times: once for the Democrats and twice for his own party, the Illinois Solidarity Party.
Party chieftains support this approach, since the two LaRouche candidates, Mark Fairchild and Janice Hart, remain on the official Democratic ticket. Whether voters will follow is unclear.
``Our task . . . is simply convincing voters how to cast their ballot with the one-two-three process,'' says Barbara Brown, Democratic chairwoman for Randolph County.
In fact, if this off-year election tightens up, as Republican and Democratic observers expect, victory may rest not with the candidates' performances, but with the parties' abilities to turn out their voters. No area is assured. Democrats have to turn out in large numbers in Chicago. Republicans must overcome apathy in their suburban Chicago strongholds, known as the ``collar counties.'' Downstate, which in Illinois means the rest of the state, could go either way, political observers say.
The candidates themselves have attacked each other repeatedly in the first two of three scheduled debates.
Stevenson held the governor personally responsible for the deaths of the state's abused and neglected children. He has also criticized the governor's administration with overt patronage and wasteful spending.
Governor Thompson wondered why Stevenson, during his tenure as Illinois senator, voted to bail out New York City and keep automatic elevator operators in the US Capitol, but was against a bailout for Chrysler, which employs thousands of Illinois workers.
To win, Stevenson will need a lot of things to fall into place, observers say. Thompson, meanwhile, carries the burden of 10 years of an incumbent's record.
``It's so hard to make everybody happy in a state like this,'' says Peter Remmert, president of the Illinois Republican County Chairmen's Association. ``It'll be close. [But] Thompson's going to win.''