President Donald Trump may be a racist and a bigot, said the six Democratic candidates for Illinois governor Tuesday night, but the people who voted for him did so in spite of those characteristics, not because of them.

All six appeared before a packed house Tuesday night at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, at a forum sponsored by the Southern Illinois LOCAL Media Group and the Carbondale Chamber of Commerce.

It wasn't lost on any of the candidates that southern Illinois counties voted 70 percent to 80 percent for Trump in 2016.

"I don't care where I am, Donald Trump is still a misogynist, a racist and a xenophobe," said J.B. Pritzker, a venture capitalist from Chicago. "But I do not believe most people who voted for him share his characteristics."

Instead, he said, the Democratic Party did not come through for them. "We are the party that stands up for the middle class," Pritzker said.

Topics at the 90-minute forum ranged from the progressive income tax and how to make Illinois of greater interest to business to the candidates' leadership styles and whether it was appropriate for all candidates to release detailed tax returns.

But the conversation always came back to the economy and opportunities for lower- and middle-class families.

Christopher Kennedy, the eighth son of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy and the former longtime manager of the mammoth Merchandise Mart in Chicago, warned that if upward mobility is not restored for the American poor and middle class, "we'll get someone worse than Trump."

"It's a mistake not to listen to those voices," Kennedy said. "They are angry, they are raging, they are ticked off that the promise of this country hasn't been met. Today in America, if you are born poor you will probably remain poor, the wealthy will stay wealthy, and if you are born in between you will have a life of constant threat and hazard ... and Trump tapped into that anger."

Daniel Biss, a state senator from Evanston, agreed that although Trump is a "racist and a bigot, it doesn't mean his supporters are."

He said the Democratic strategy in the last election was a failure -- the party wrote off areas that traditionally were strong Republican or reliably Democratic, leaving them vulnerable to the GOP.

"We need a party that will be everywhere in Illinois, every corner," he argued. "Stop taking people for granted, and bring people together with an agenda that lifts everybody up."

Bob Daiber, the regional superintendent of schools in Madison County, said Trump's promises to southern Illinois have been broken -- coal jobs are not back, and there's been no serious investment in the region.

Daiber, who is the only candidate running for Illinois governor -- Democrat or Republican -- not from the Chicago area, turned that back on the race at hand, pointing out that 3½ years ago former Gov. Pat Quinn failed to carry one southern Illinois county.

"You have to pick a candidate who can beat Bruce Rauner," he said.

Tio Hardiman, an anti-violence activist in Chicago, said Democratic leaders have been unsuccessful in bridging the gap between the Chicago area and the rest of Illinois. "I believe in running this state from the bottom up, and hear the voices," he said.

Bob Marshall, a doctor from suburban Burr Ridge, has built his campaign around the idea that Illinois cannot reconcile Chicago and downstate interests, and therefore the state should split into three independent states.

"You've been ignored down here," Marshall told the more than 300 in the audience, who reacted with amusement to his plan to break up the state. "We've got 20 percent of the state bossing around the other 80 percent.

"You won't be associated with Chicago anymore, you'll have your own state, your own governor, a new constitution," he insisted.

The gubernatorial primaries will be held March 20. On the Republican side, Gov. Bruce Rauner has a primary challenger in state Rep. Jeannie Ives of Wheaton.