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updated: 3/3/2018 11:30 AM

Big question in Dem governor race: Can anyone stop Pritzker?

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CHICAGO -- As the fight to become the Democratic nominee for Illinois governor enters its final weeks, the looming question remains the same as it's been for months: Can anyone stop J.B. Pritzker?

The billionaire Chicago businessman has spent millions on his campaign, becoming a seemingly constant presence on television and collecting endorsements from many in the party establishment. Polls consistently have shown him as the front runner.

His closest rivals, state Sen. Daniel Biss and businessman Chris Kennedy, each argue they're the candidate that would bring true change to the Democratic party and the state. They're working to derail Pritzker come March 20, with Kennedy reporting a recent bump in fundraising and Biss stressing his status as "the middle-class candidate."

Three others are seeking the nomination: educator and farmer Bob Daiber, anti-violence activist Tio Hardiman and physician Robert Marshall. In the Republican primary, Gov. Bruce Rauner faces a late challenge from conservative state Rep. Jeanne Ives, whose campaign fund is a tiny fraction of what the wealthy former private equity investor has at his disposal.

Rauner already has spent money to damage Pritzker, airing audio from FBI wiretaps in which the Democrat is heard talking to now-imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich about a political appointment. In a particularly damaging one, Pritzker describes Secretary of State Jesse White as the "least offensive" African-American lawmaker Blagojevich might consider appointing.

His Democratic rivals argue the previously unreleased audio, obtained by the Chicago Tribune, would haunt a Pritzker bid and make him unelectable in November.

Pritzker has apologized for the remarks. The heir to the Hyatt hotel fortune says Rauner is attacking him precisely because he's the Democrat best positioned financially and politically to deny the governor a second term.

"He's not spending money against any of my opponents," Pritkzer said during a recent WBEZ/Politico debate. "Why is that? Because he knows that he can't win in a general election against me."

It's still unknown whether any additional wiretap audio of Pritzker and Blagojevich exists. The Tribune hasn't disclosed how it obtained the audio or whether there's more, and Pritzker has said he doesn't know.

Pritzker, who was one of Hillary Clinton's biggest supporters for president, says he got into the race because he saw what was happening under President Donald Trump, whom he calls a racist and misogynist. He describes Rauner as Trump's "local silent partner."

As the race has appeared to tighten in recent weeks, Pritzker also has directed attacks at his fellow Democrats.

He blasted Kennedy for praising Rauner and for supporting multiple tuition increases when he was chairman of the University of Illinois Board of Trustees. And he said Biss' record, which includes sponsoring legislation to cut public-worker pensions, hasn't been good for the middle class.

Kennedy, the son of the late Sen. Robert Kennedy and nephew of the late President John F. Kennedy, calls Rauner "one of the worst governors in Illinois history."

But he's stood by his comment that the Republican should be commended for criticizing a flawed property tax system and "pay to play" culture in Cook County and Illinois. He described Pritzker's remarks on the wiretap audio featured in Rauner's ads as the "language of racists."

Kennedy says his campaign represents a break from the status quo.

"If you want radical change in Illinois .... come and work on my campaign," he told an audience at the University of Chicago on Thursday.

Biss says he made a mistake when he supported the pension legislation, which the Supreme Court threw out, and says that process and his other experiences in the Legislature mean he'll be a better governor. He says the question facing voters is whether it's good enough to just defeat Rauner.

"We can look at a situation with Bruce Rauner in the governor's mansion and Donald Trump in the White House and say inexperienced wealthy businessmen who buy their way into office must be the solution, or we can look at that and say it's time for a middle-class progressive," Biss said.

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