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Hastert may still play leadership role in party
By David Beery | Daily Herald Staff

Former House speaker Dennis Hastert made a brief appearance at the Illinois delegates breakfast at the Republican National Convention Tuesday in Minneapolis.


Rick West | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/3/2008 12:05 AM | Updated: 9/3/2008 1:23 PM

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MINNEAPOLIS - The man who for seven years was only a pair of heartbeats from the Oval Office is keeping a low profile this week, but Dennis Hastert's Republican colleagues say they still look to him for leadership.

Dennis Hastert, who served as House speaker longer than any other Republican, is keeping a relatively low profile at the national convention. Even before Republicans trimmed their schedule, Hastert was not slated to address the entire convention. He was guest of honor at a private reception Monday hosted by BNSF Railway. He has granted interviews and did appear at the Illinois delegates' breakfast Tuesday. The Plano Republican also will speak to state delegates before the convention adjourns.

Illinois Republicans say the bottom line is that Hastert can continue to play a vital party role.

"I think we need to have in this next election cycle, as we get to 2010, someone who has the respect of everyone in the Republican party, to make sure that we have civil primaries and that we support whoever wins," said state Rep. Jim Durkin, of Western Springs.

Illinois Republicans, Durkin said, have self-destructed during the last two elections by demonizing one another in intense, post-primary battles.

In order to capitalize in 2010 on Illinois Democrats' own internal feuding, Durkin said, Republicans need "basically someone with that big stick who is going to be able to institute party discipline and who's going to make sure we're on the same page."

Hastert fits the bill, Durkin said, because he's widely respected and because he holds no office himself.

Hastert sounds as if he might be willing to speak out occasionally on just such matters. Asked about Democrat Bill Foster's surprise special-election win in May giving his party control of Hastert's former House seat, he said: "I was surprised that it happened, but I had been a little bit worried because we had a very contentious primary and because the guy who lost (state Sen. Chris Lauzen) wasn't very magnanimous at all and as a matter of fact, held his people out, and you know, 5 percent, that's the margin between a win or a loss."

Illinois House Republican Leader Tom Cross agrees that Hastert carries the stature needed for the role Durkin envisions. But he also said Illinois Republicans should not rely on a party elder to solve all problems.

"I think, and this is not a negative comment, that it also is time for others to kind of step up to the plate and build the party and grow the party and bring it back," Cross said. "I think he will help when asked. I also think he realizes that it's other people's time."

Nearly two years have passed since Democrats regained control of the U.S. House, halting Hastert's lengthy run as speaker. Hastert stayed on in his House seat for several months before resigning at midterm last November.

Since then, Hastert has taken on the unpaid and largely thankless task of lobbying state lawmakers and the public, on Gov. Rod Blagojevich's behalf, for a proposed $25 billion program to rebuild the state's infrastructure. Efforts in Springfield to advance such a program have run into various roadblocks, including sharp differences among legislative leaders and the governor on how to pay for an estimated $25 billion undertaking.

Hastert also has landed a couple of paid consulting roles: one with a Naperville-based firm doing work on energy and health care and the other with a Washington, D.C.,-based law and lobbying firm. Hastert said he does not envision a new career as a lobbyist but does think his experience puts him in a position to offer occasional advice.

"I always said I was three miles wide and 10 inches deep," Hastert said, "but there are a lot of things I know, and I think I can make some contributions on the outside, particularly on energy issues."