Governor candidates sharpen attacks on eve of early voting

With a few days to go before early voting starts in Illinois, state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady sharpened their attacks tonight at the first televised Chicago-area debate in the Republican primary race for governor.

Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, pointed to his own legal experience, as well as Brady's and Illinois Treasurer Dan Rutherford's business experience, to push back against the career politician label Winnetka businessman Bruce Rauner has tried to stick onto the other three opponents.

The debate sponsored by ABC 7 Chicago, Univision Chicago and the League of Women Voters was the last major public forum candidates had before Illinoisans start making their picks via early voting Monday, so no one was immune from attacks from the others.

"My friend Bill Brady has lost twice and the third time's not a charm," Dillard said. "Mr. Rauner spent millions on TV ads, and like his watch, talk is cheap."

Rauner, meanwhile, largely tried to appear above the fray, taking a pass on a question about why an opponent might be unelectable against Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn in November.

"I'm not going to answer that question directly," Rauner said.

Brady, of Bloomington, criticized Dillard for the campaign commercial he made for Barack Obama before Obama's first campaign for president.

"I don't think he's a reliable Republican," Brady said of Dillard after the debate.

And Rauner hit Dillard over his endorsement by the state's largest teachers union and the $50,000 in campaign cash that has come with it.

The debate gave Dillard, Brady and Rutherford much-needed TV exposure in prime time as Rauner has flooded the airwaves with ads portraying him as an everyman outsider who wants to change the much-maligned Illinois Capitol.

After the debate, Dillard asked Republicans not to rush to vote before the March 18 primary election date.

"I want people to see everything evolve," he said.

Before the candidates began trading barbs on issues in the debate, Rutherford directly addressed accusations of sexual harassment and political misdeeds made by a former employee, denying the claims as he has before and telling voters the truth eventually will come out, even if it's after the primary.

In the opening statements typically reserved for political platitudes and campaign rhetoric, Rutherford acknowledged the scandal that has hampered his bid for governor.

"I know, candidly, how tough this has made my campaign," said Rutherford, of Chenoa.

The other candidates mostly stayed away from Rutherford to avoid appearing eager to, as Brady said afterward, "pile on."

The candidates largely avoided laying out specific plans to address Illinois' disastrous finances beyond allowing the state's 2011 tax increase to roll back.

Rauner, for example, called for "comprehensive tax reform" and Rutherford said "everything is on the table," including raising more revenue via taxes.

Brady touted being the only candidate to back big teacher and state worker pension cuts at the end of last year and repeated his desire to eliminate the Illinois State Board of Education, and Dillard says he wants to find waste in the government program providing health care for low-income people.

The four candidates all oppose a state ban on so-called assault weapons and largely punted on a question about same-sex marriage, though Rutherford pointed out he voted to allow civil unions in 2010.

As the candidates' positions on issues don't vary widely, they've often split on questions of experience.

The campaign dynamic has pit the self-styled outsider in Rauner against the longtime state government experience of Dillard, Brady and Rutherford.

Dillard said of Rauner's first bid for elected office that governor of Illinois isn't an "entry-level job."

Clockwise from top left, Bill Brady, Kirk Dillard, Dan Rutherford and Bruce Rauner are seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 2014.
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