MARION — One Republican crows that he's been to Chicago just a few times. Another says he left the big city as soon as he could.
And the best-known Democrat in the race to replace Rep. Glenn Poshard in Congress is quick to distance himself from Chicagoland colleagues in the state House.
It's campaign time in the 19th Congressional District, 27 southern and central Illinois counties where "upstate" is almost a dirty word and geography has become a central issue in this year's Republican primary.
Three Republicans and two Democrats are on the March 17 primary ballot seeking the chance to succeed Poshard, the five-term Marion Democrat who is running for governor.
On the Republican side, two-time nominee Brent Winters and newcomer Jerry Berg are locked in a battle to prove whose roots run deeper. The third Republican candidate, James Eatherly, is also running a low-profile campaign.
State Rep. David Phelps of Eldorado appears headed for an easy win in the Democratic primary. Phelps has the widespread backing of party leaders and his only opponent, Jerry Eckl of Newton, has done little campaigning and appears to be poorly funded.
Berg and Winters both portray themselves as conservative Republicans, against abortion and gun control and running on identical promises to restore family values to the nation and "honesty and integrity" to the federal government.
Both are taking shots at President Clinton, with Berg calling on Clinton to resign for a lack of "basic moral character."
They part ways when it comes to their roots.
Winters — who has been a sailor, pastor, geologist and lawyer in his 43 years — proclaims himself a lifelong central Illinoisan whose only breaks in residency came when he attended divinity school in California and law school in Missouri.
Citing Berg's support from other districts and Chicago-based business organizations, Winters portrays his main opponent as a carpetbagger subject to influence from "powerful banking interests" outside the district.
"I've only been to Chicago a few times in my life. I don't know anybody there. And I don't care to go back, frankly," Winters said.
Berg, 35, acknowledges returning to his childhood central Illinois just last year. He moved to Chicago to work for Paine Webber after graduating with a master's degree from Cornell University, and returned to Oreana — just outside of Decatur — as soon as he could convince his employer to allow the move.
He has worked to bring a decidedly small-town feel to his campaign, adopting the name of his father's gas station, Berg Service, as his campaign theme. And he's quick to note that he was born in the central part of what is now the 19th district, went to college in Carbondale, near the district's southern end, and now lives in the north.
"This entire district is my home," he said.
Berg, whose $40,305 in loans and contributions to his own campaign outpace the $38,612 he had raised from contributors as of Dec. 31, denies any outside influence in his campaign. Winters had raised $28,014 as of year's end.
Berg has criticized Winters for campaign literature that listed endorsements from some county GOP officials who later claimed not to have endorsed him. Winters says those officials had initially endorsed him but later withdrew public support. Their names are no longer listed, he said.
Berg has collected the support of U.S. Reps. Thomas Ewing, John Shimkus and Ray LaHood and a variety of business organizations while Winters has endorsements from several pro-life and gun rights groups that can help generate a strong turn out from conservative primary voters.
Democrat Phelps, an Eldorado native who serves as chairman of the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee, has worked throughout the campaign to highlight his "striking similarities" to Poshard, including his opposition to abortion and gun control. His campaign brochures also emphasize that he has parted with Chicago interests "on many occasions, even though House leaders pressured him to do otherwise."
A seven-term representative, Phelps is best known in Southern Illinois for his efforts to bring increased funding to the region's crumbling schools. He says he would continue to focus on education and rural health care in Congress.
He raised $94,722 in 1997, including $29,650 in contributions from political action committees.
Neither Eckl or Eatherly registered with the Federal Election Commission, indicating they raised and spent less than $5,000.