SPRINGING down the steps of the yellow school bus that is her campaign trademark, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dawn Clark Netsch draws cheers from a small crowd gathered to hear about her plan to reform education financing.
The scene in the blue-collar city of Chicago Heights captures Ms. Netsch's strengths as an earnest, highly qualified candidate with bold ideas. But it also underscores her biggest weakness: a failure so far to extend her appeal beyond her liberal-leaning Democratic supporters to a more conservative general electorate.
Until recently, voter polls have indicated that Netsch is trailing her Republican rival, incumbent Gov. Jim Edgar, by as many as 30 points. Although polls last week suggested that Netsch has narrowed the gap to between 10 and 20 points, political pundits say she still faces a daunting, uphill struggle for the governorship.
``So far, she has not been able to make inroads among liberal to moderate Republicans,'' says Alan Gitelson, professor of political science at Loyola University.
Netsch's initial success in presenting herself as a straight-shooting, progressive candidate and financial expert allowed her to topple two better known contenders and capture the Democratic nomination for governor in a stunning primary win last March. The victory was historic; Netsch is the first woman candidate from a major party for governor of Illinois.
Netsch says her plan to reform education financing sets her apart from Edgar by highlighting her creativity, concern for social equality, and commitment to more responsible, active government. The plan would reduce the reliance of schools on property taxes, a system that Netsch says unfairly burdens property owners and worsens disparities between rich and poor school districts.
Under the plan, the state would raise $2.5 billion from an income tax increase, using $1 billion of the amount for schools, $1 billion for property-tax relief, and $500 million to increase income tax exemptions for middle-class and poor residents.
Since the primary, however, Netsch's campaign has stalled.
In early June, the Edgar camp launched a series of television ads portraying her as a tax-and-spend liberal who was soft on crime. The ads were part of a national strategy used by Republicans to peg female Democratic candidates as weak crime fighters.
The negative ads distorted both Netsch's personal opposition to the death penalty (she says she would enforce the existing law) and her proposals for a tax increase, political analysts say.
Edgar contends he has no plans to raise taxes, but officials from both parties have said the soaring costs of Medicaid and other programs make a tax increase inevitable.
Still, the ads swayed voters. Lacking the funds of her well-financed rival, Netsch was unable to make ads to counter the Republican attack until July. Then, she withheld the ads for a month because Edgar was hospitalized for heart surgery.
``At a point when she needed to crystallize her image and message, Edgar reidentified her and put her on the defensive,'' says Jack Van Der Slik, director of the Illinois Legislative Studies Center at Sangamon State University in Springfield, Ill.
The Netsch campaign has not yet recovered from the blow of the initial Edgar ads, which sharply pushed down her ratings in the polls. ``We have been on television now and it has made some difference,'' Netsch said in an interview between campaign stops. ``But he has apparently unlimited funds and can come up with a new ad every week. There's no way we can keep up with that.''
The Edgar attacks have hampered her campaign, Netsch says, by tying up resources she otherwise could use to court women, minorities, and other major voter constituencies.
Netsch is the first woman in the country to run for governor with a female running mate, she is the first woman to hold a state executive office in Illinois, and she has fought hard as a state senator for laws on family leave, criminal sexual abuse, and wage discrimination. Despite this impressive record on women's issues, polls indicate that she lacks special appeal among women.
Analysts say Netsch's difficulty in defining her image and getting across her complex policy proposals has left voters leaning toward the incumbent as a safe bet.
``Edgar may not be seen as a fantastic governor, but he doesn't have overwhelming negatives either,'' says Dr. Gitelson.
Still, in Chicago Heights and other localities where she has effectively conveyed her message, Netsch enjoys strong support.
Chicago Heights, like many Illinois communities, faces a school funding crisis because of a drop in the state's share of total public education spending. Under Edgar's tenure, that share fell to 32.8 percent in 1993-94, its lowest level in recent history.
Last March, voters in Chicago Heights rejected a referendum to increase property taxes to make up for cuts in state funding to schools in District No. 206. As a result, the district had to lay off 33 teachers, cut classes like honors French, drastically curtail sports, and shorten the school day from 2:30 p.m. to 1:50 p.m.
``Teachers were crying in the classroom,'' says Kenya Dew, a junior at Bloom Trail High School in Chicago Heights.
The state senate passed a bill in April providing emergency funds for the district for the current school year. But more severe cuts are likely unless voters pass a new referendum for a property tax increase next month.
``We're not the only ones,'' says Susan Carr, president of the district's teachers' union. ``Surrounding areas will experience this too because of the decrease in state funding.''