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Ditka won't run for Senate

Legendary NFL coach was seen as best GOP hope in Illinois

Former NFL head coach Mike Ditka
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Bears legend Mike Ditka explains why he won't run for the Senate.
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CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN) -- Legendary Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka said Wednesday night that he has decided not to run for the open U.S. Senate seat in Illinois.

"I've thought about it. I've talked to my family. I've talked to some close friends. I have a lot of commitments that I've made previous to this coming up, some obligations to my partners here at this restaurant. And therefore, it's something that I can't do at this time," he said.

Ditka spoke to reporters outside his steakhouse in Chicago.

He said he was "honored" that Republican leaders had approached him and that the attention he received was "flattering."

"Five [or] six years ago, I would have jumped on it, I would have ran with it and I know this -- that I would make a good senator because I'm for the people."

In addition to his restaurant, Ditka also serves as a football analyst for ESPN.

Ditka's decision means with less than four months to go before Election Day, Republicans still don't have a candidate to face Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald.

A group of Illinois Republicans had been trying to draft Ditka into the race, after GOP candidate Jack Ryan withdrew last month.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Illinois, spoke with Ditka Tuesday by phone. Hastert spokesman John Feehery wouldn't discuss the details of the conversation.

Hastert did not publicly endorse Ditka because it was not clear he would seek the seat, Feehery said before Ditka's decision had been made public.

Ditka met Tuesday night at his restaurant in Chicago with Sen. George Allen of Virginia, the head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, according to a GOP source.

The source said Allen decided to meet with Ditka personally to discuss "things to think about" and also give him "the lay of the land."

Allen also wanted to know who was giving Ditka advice as he spoke to the media about the possibility he might run, the source said.

Allen has his own NFL connection. His father, George Allen Sr., was the longtime coach of the Washington Redskins and was an assistant coach for the Bears in 1961 when Ditka was drafted to play professional football.

Republicans have been looking for a viable Senate candidate since Ryan, winner of the GOP primary, pulled out in late June after private information from his divorce records was disclosed under court order.

In the records, his ex-wife, TV actress Jeri Lynn Ryan, alleged that he took her to sex clubs and asked her to perform sexual acts in front of other people.

Jack Ryan denied the charges and initially vowed to stay in the race. But his political situation became untenable after Republican leaders began abandoning him. He eventually withdrew.

Obama is a rising star in Democratic circles who has a healthy lead in the polls. Obama said Wednesday that Ditka would be a formidable foe, given his "100 percent name recognition."

Obama was tapped Wednesday to speak at the Democratic National Convention to be held this month in Boston, Massachusetts.

Ditka, 64, a household name is beloved in Chicago for leading the Bears to a Super Bowl title in 1985.

His candidacy would have brought celebrity and media attention to a race where Republicans face an uphill battle.

Ditka, nicknamed Iron Mike and well known for his blunt outspokenness, had told local media he was excited about the possibility of running.

"If I want the opportunity, I'll run. I'm not afraid to get beat at anything," he told WGN-TV.

The prospect of a Ditka candidacy clearly buoyed Republicans in Washington, who had considered the seat all but lost.

"He's got name ID, and he'll get the Bubba vote," said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas.

The Illinois race is one of eight open seats that both parties are fighting over as they vie for control of the closely divided Senate.

It is considered the strongest shot Democrats have to wrest a seat from GOP hands, given the state's Democratic leanings and Ryan's implosion.

Republicans are also defending open seats in Colorado and Oklahoma. Democrats are defending open seats in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana.

CNN's Chris Lawrence, Joe Johns and Ted Barrett contributed to this report.

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