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GOP candidate debate takes on feisty tone

Published: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 10:14 p.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014 11:44 p.m. CDT

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CHICAGO – Personal jabs and controversies dominated Thursday's televised Illinois gubernatorial debate where the four Republican candidates tried to distinguish themselves – including two state senators who lag behind in polling and fundraising – days before the start of early voting for the primary.

From the opening minutes, Sen. Kirk Dillard was particularly aggressive at making personal digs at the other three: Sen. Bill Brady on losing the GOP primary in 2006 and governor's race in 2010, Treasurer Dan Rutherford on recent allegations of misconduct, and businessman Bruce Rauner for his massive fundraising, television ads that have dominated the airwaves, and even his inexpensive wristwatch.

The three weren't shy about shooting back, with Brady accusing Dillard of being an unreliable Republican.

But all four took aim at each other, from links to high-profile Chicago Democrats to time as "career politicians," making the tone of the hour-long debate the most fiery yet ahead of the March 18 primary. Early voting starts Monday.

"My friend Bill Brady has lost twice and the third time's not a charm. Mr. Rauner spent millions on TV ads, and like his watch, talk is cheap. And Dan Rutherford has had a tough couple of weeks which he blames on the dirty tricks Mr. Rauner," Dillard said during the debate, which was hosted by the League of Women Voters of Illinois, WLS-TV and Univision.

The candidates were asked about pension reform, the income tax increase, gay marriage and their ads. But the focus was more personal than previous debates.

Rutherford, of Chenoa, addressed allegations of misconduct in his opening statement. He has spent recent weeks defending himself after a former employee filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and being forced to do campaign work while on state time.

"These allegations are false. I know candidly how tough this has made my campaign," he said. "The truth isn't going to be known until after this election is over with. But it will be."

Rauner, who portrays himself as an outsider who will go up against "government union bosses," alluded to the others as career politicians, prompting each of them to defend their leadership and time in Springfield. Rutherford was a longtime lawmaker before he was elected treasurer in 2010.

"I'm running against the culture of failure in Springfield," said Rauner, a venture capitalist from Winnetka.

But Brady questioned Rauner's allegiance to the Republican Party by bringing up Rauner's ties to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat. Rauner is friends with Emanuel and he has contributed money to support him and other Democrats.

Rauner's fundraising – he's raised millions through his personal wealth and contacts – came under scrutiny by the Illinois AFL-CIO. The union asked a state investigator this week to prohibit Rauner from contributing to his own campaign and review about $5 million that he has contributed for violations of Illinois' procurement code.

The code prohibits businesses doing work for the state from donating to the campaign of the officeholder in charge of the contracts. Rauner is the former chairman of GTCR, which invests state pension-system money. Rauner's campaign has dismissed the union's complaint as a desperate attempt by Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's allies.

Brady, of Bloomington, defended his record as a legislator in Springfield. He also said he has learned lessons since winning the GOP nomination but losing the governor's office to Quinn in 2010, making him best suited to take on again Quinn in November.

"I don't think I'm part of the problem either," Brady said.

The debate comes as Dillard and Brady lag behind the others in fundraising and polls, something both state lawmakers acknowledged but said they weren't worried about. Brady said his ads will hit the airwaves next week, while Dillard has touted recent endorsements from teachers unions.

Both are counting on a last-minute surge – and they had a heated exchange during the debate.

Dillard, of Hinsdale, was criticized for a 2007 appearance in a campaign ad for then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama in the Democratic presidential primary, in which he touted Obama's skills in reaching across the aisle.

"Dillard's support of Barack Obama is a nonstarter," Brady said.

Dillard responded that he didn't support Obama's presidential bid after he became the Democratic nominee.

One thing the candidates did agree on was that they personally did not object to gay marriage, even though they have opposed it politically. Each one talked about knowing and socializing with gay couples and friends. Illinois' new same-sex marriage law takes effect later this year, though numerous couples, particularly in Chicago, have been able to wed early after court rulings.

Brady and Dillard voted against the same-sex marriage legislation last year, saying they believed in the traditional definition of marriage. Rauner said the issue should have been put to a voter referendum, but that it was now law.

Rutherford has previously said he didn't support gay marriage legislation because of religious concerns, but on Thursday he played up his vote for civil unions in 2010, when he was a lawmaker.

"If somebody finds somebody they love, then so be it," Rutherford said.

Quinn, who is seeking re-election, faces primary challenger Tio Hardiman, an anti-violence activist. But Quinn's campaign has said the Chicago Democrat won't participate in any debates ahead of the primary.

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Follow Sophia Tareen on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen

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