The political soap opera that is the Republican gubernatorial primary rolls into Chicago Thursday night with the first televised debate in the region.
The showdown between Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner, state Sens. Bill Brady and Kirk Dillard and Treasurer Dan Rutherford is hosted by ABC 7, the League of Women Voters of Illinois and Univision Chicago.
Although Rauner, whose deep pockets have flooded the airwaves with ads, is the presumed front-runner, anything can happen, political experts say.
"People should tune in because it's Rauner's to lose," said Sharon Alter, professor emeritus of history and political science at Harper College.
Political debates aren't so much about winning, instead it's "more about people making mistakes," said former state Sen. Dan Cronin, now board chairman of DuPage County -- a battleground for Republicans in the March 18 primary.
"There's probably more at stake for a guy like Rauner, who's carefully plotted his course," Cronin observed.
One elephant in the room will be the scandal swirling around Rutherford, who has spent the last few weeks in damage control denying accusations of sexual harassment and forced campaigning by a former employee.
While conventional wisdom indicates Rutherford, of Chenoa, won't address the issue, political veteran Jack Schaffer thinks the debate could be the treasurer's last shot.
"I think if he's going to be credible, he has to clear the air," said Schaffer, former state senator and former McHenry County GOP chairman.
Longtime Republican organizer Pat Durante noted that although Rauner has more money, Brady of Bloomington and Dillard of Hinsdale are on an equal footing during the 60-minute broadcast.
"If any candidate has any shot to beat him ... this debate creates an opportunity," said Durante, Addison Township Republican chairman. "They can make the case for why they are the alternative."
It's also a chance for voters to see Rauner in action, Schaffer added.
"Is what we've seen on TV the real Rauner or the result of focus groups and polling?" he wondered.
Despite the polls, some consider the race wide open given the small number of Republicans expected to actually vote.
"Precinct committeemen have not yet gone out and knocked on doors," Durante said. "Republican voters are a funny sort ... you could poll them and poll them and they walk into the polling place -- who knows what they're thinking?"
The debate airs at 7 tonight on ABC's digital station 7.2 and will stream live at abclocal.go.com/wls/index. Univision will show the event at 11:35 tonight.
ABC will also broadcast the debate at 7 p.m. Friday on Channel 7.