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Battling for the Senate in the Land of Lincoln

As Democratic strategists seek to regain control of the Senate this fall, an Illinois seat that will be vacated by retiring Republican Peter Fitzgerald is the focus of national attention. Republican Jack Ryan, an investment banker-turned-teacher, and Democrat Barack Obama, currently a state senator, are competing in a closely watched contest that could potentially shape the balance of power in Congress. With Republicans narrowly outnumbering Democrats in the Senate 51 to 48, both camps are pouring money and resources into the race.

As NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, the race offers two candidates with dramatically different backgrounds and riveting back stories. A millionaire who left his banking career to teach in an inner-city school in Chicago, Ryan is a first-time candidate. He has strong backing from the Bush administration and GOP senators. He also faces a California judge's threat to make Ryan's potentially embarrassing divorce papers public.

A victory for Obama would make him just the third African American to serve in the Senate since Reconstruction. The former civil rights lawyer is the son of a Kenyan father and an American mother. He has a record of enacting state programs to help the needy -- and he won the Democratic primary in a landslide.

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Cheryl Corley is a Chicago-based NPR correspondent who works for the National Desk. She primarily covers criminal justice issues as well as breaking news in the Midwest and across the country.