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Sen. Mark Kirk is busy behind the scenes

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) didn't make it GOP conventibut he has been busy strategizing how Republicans can retake governor's

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) didn't make it to the GOP convention, but he has been busy strategizing how the Republicans can retake the governor's office and both houses of Illinois' Legislature. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: September 29, 2012 6:17AM

CLEARWATER — Between bad weather and conflicting obligations, many Illinois Republican luminaries were missing Monday when party officials convened the first breakfast session of their national convention week.

Nobody’s absence was felt more strongly, however, than that of Sen. Mark Kirk, whose promising freshman term was turned upside-down in January when he suffered a crippling stroke.

Kirk, who is still rehabbing from the stroke and has not been seen in public except on video, is not expected to make the trip to Florida to take part in the presidential nomination of Mitt Romney.

Instead, State Party Chairman Pat Brady paid tribute to Kirk in his welcoming remarks by promising the delegation that Republicans will retake the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the Legislature by 2014 — and explained they will do so by “executing Mark’s plan.”

Brady’s reference to “Mark’s plan” served to highlight Kirk’s not well-known, behind-the-scenes role as an architect of a political strategy to return Republicans to power in Illinois. Before the stroke, Kirk had been moving forcefully to use his position as the state’s highest-ranking GOP elected official to consolidate power as unofficial leader of the state party.

It appeared, to me at least, that he was well on his way to helping the state GOP finally transition away from the era of former Governors Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar, whose influence within the party is still widely felt decades after they left office.

With his carefully honed image as a moderate North Shore congressman and enough conservative appeal to keep the party’s right-wing wolves at bay, Kirk’s breakthrough election made him a natural to take the reins. One of his first moves, party officials say, was to recognize the potential danger to Illinois Republican congressional candidates in 2012.

With President Barack Obama on the ballot for re-election, taking Illinois out of play for Republicans on the presidential side, and with Democrats controlling the re-districting process, Republican congressmen needed the help of a stronger state party apparatus to survive, he decided.

Kirk’s first move was to help the party with fund-raising by recruiting a new finance committee chaired by his longtime ally, Lake Forest industrialist Sandy Stuart.

In recognition that many potential donors in Illinois are more interested in what happens in the state Legislature than in Congress, Kirk also suggested putting an emphasis on retaking the Legislature.

To assist that effort, Kirk has made available voter identification information developed during his own campaign to bolster other campaigns, officials say.

“Mark has been phenomenal in terms of sharing data that he has, having his staff coordinate with ours,” said Sen. Christine Radogno of Lemont, the Republican leader in the Senate. “Mark was very smart about being one of the first to be extraordinarily data driven and making sure that we were able to get out there and identify our voters.”

Party chairman Brady, a Kirk ally, said the senator “doesn’t talk about it much, because he talks issues, but there’s no better campaign strategist than Mark Kirk.”

“What I mean by that,” Brady added, “is to identify the voters that are with you and get them to the polls. That’s how he won. He has the most sophisticated, organized structure in the state, and that’s what we try to emulate in the state party. It was his brainchild.”

Despite his health setback, Kirk is staying abreast of political developments, Radogno said.

“He’s still involved. That’s the thing. His staff, who talks to him regularly, is very much involved with our political staff. He’s tracking the stuff and following it,” Radogno said. “I know we sent him information on our races which I understand he was very excited to see.”

Brady said he talks to Kirk’s political operatives “five times a week, so he is actively involved in what we’re doing.”

Brady said he spent an hour with Kirk recently, partly in hopes of trying to get him to come to the convention. While that was not to be, Brady said he foresees Kirk resuming his duties.

“I’m no doctor, but I had a perfectly normal conversation with him . . . He was great,” Brady said, while allowing that Kirk still faces physical challenges.

“We went over this stuff. We went over fund-raising. We went over the convention. I think I cracked a couple Pat Quinn jokes. He was laughing. We talked about Syria. He explained to me what’s going on in Egypt.”

State Treasurer Dan Ruther­ford, chairman of the Illinois delegation at the convention after running Mitt Romney’s campaign in the state, said he recently received a tweet from Kirk.

“We really picked the right horse, didn’t we?” Kirk wrote.

I fully expect the day will come when Kirk is back in the saddle again.

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