CHICAGO (AP) -- Voters in former House Speaker Dennis Hastert's district will choose a new congressman in a special election Saturday, but there's one thing they won't replace: his clout.
Hastert funneled millions of dollars to the district during his 21 years in Washington, but his retirement means his seat will go to either Democrat Bill Foster or Republican Jim Oberweis - two wealthy businessmen with no seniority on Capitol Hill.
"That's something he (Hastert) had to earn. It will be a learning curve for whoever gets in there," said William Barclay, an alderman in the Chicago suburb of Geneva.
Democrats are eager to grab a seat Republicans have easily held for years, but the GOP is not prepared to give it up anytime soon.
As a result, the tussle over the district that runs west of Chicago to almost the Mississippi River has led to a contentious campaign of negative TV ads and clashes between the candidates over issues ranging from the Iraq war and health care to immigration. Democrats even filed a complaint with federal election authorities, claiming Oberweis didn't file the proper paperwork after he made loans to his campaign - a charge the Oberweis campaign chalked up to nitpicking.
Both sides are relying on high-profile supporters: Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama endorsed Foster in a TV ad, while the likely Republican nominee, John McCain, came to town to raise money for Oberweis, who also received Hastert's backing.
The winner Saturday will fill the remainder of Hastert's term, which ends in January. The 66-year-old Hastert, who lost his powerful post as speaker when Democrats took control of Congress, resigned late last year.
Another election for the seat will be held in November for a new, full term. Oberweis is the GOP candidate in that race and Foster had the most votes in a close Democratic primary, though one challenger has yet to concede. The state was to certify the final general primary results on Friday.
The district is one of three in Illinois with open seats this year because of GOP retirements. Reps. Jerry Weller, who represents a district from the suburban sprawl south of Chicago to the farmland of central Illinois, and Ray LaHood, of central Illinois, are also stepping down. Democrats' chances to pick up one of those seats improved when the Republican nominee to replace Weller dropped out of the race.
In the race for Hastert's seat, even Barclay, a Republican, seemed only lukewarm about Oberweis.
"I'm probably going to be leaning toward Mr. Oberweis. He's not the one I would have chosen, but I'm a Republican and that's who the Republican Party and the district has chosen," Barclay said.
He acknowledges the district could be captured by Democrats.
Foster and Oberweis have emphasized their differences on the issues, often accusing each other of distorting the other's positions.
On Iraq, Foster pledged to be a "good vote in Congress to change President Bush's policy" during a recent joint appearance on WMAQ-TV. Oberweis said the troop surge in Iraq was working: "Things are getting better in Iraq. We're winning. We're doing the right thing."
On health care, Oberweis blasted Foster - who says he wants to move toward universal coverage - for clinging to what Oberweis called the Democratic approach that "big government is the answer, big government will solve our problems."
Oberweis favors tax incentives to help people buy their own insurance, something Foster says only works for people who are "healthy and wealthy. Other than that, you're on your own."
Regardless of who wins Saturday, shop owner Gina Rapacki, who plans to back Foster, isn't worried about being represented by a rookie congressman.
"I think that people know the district, know Illinois, and I think we'll be OK, no matter who gets in there," Rapacki said.
Associated Press writer Tara Burghart contributed to this report.
© 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.