CHICAGO – The four Republicans running for Illinois governor delved into social issues during a televised debate Tuesday, a shift in the increasingly intense primary campaign that has focused largely on the state's financial issues.
All the candidates – state Sens. Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady, businessman Bruce Rauner and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford – said they would reinstate Illinois' death penalty, which was abolished in 2011. They also said they would welcome same-sex couples if they came to the Governor's Mansion in Springfield; Illinois legalized same-sex marriage this year.
The candidates differed slightly on abortion during the debate, which was hosted by WMAQ-TV at a University of Chicago venue.
The three officeholders said they were "pro-life" when asked about their views on abortion. Brady, of Bloomington, didn't directly answer when asked if he would support reversing Roe v. Wade, the 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion, but said he couldn't change a federal ruling. Rutherford, of Chenoa, also noted it was a federal decision and said he would have to see legislation before he said more. Dillard, of Hinsdale, said there wasn't anything a governor could do about it, adding later that he wouldn't further restrict access to abortions.
Rauner, a Winnetka resident seeking public office for the first time, said he doesn't have a social agenda on the campaign.
"I believe abortion is a tragedy. It's a sad event I wish didn't occur," Rauner said. But he said he believes abortion is a decision that should be between a woman, her family and her doctor, and that government shouldn't be involved.
The debate comes a day after early voting began in Illinois primaries, and many voters remain undecided. Social issues could be a deciding factor for some GOP voters leading up to the March 18 primary.
All candidates have made a push in recent days to get voters to the polls sooner. Early voting runs through March 15.
Brady, Dillard and Rutherford have trailed Rauner in polls and fundraising, but they have vowed to make up the difference.
A survey this week by Southern Illinois University's Paul Simon Public Policy Institute showed nearly 35 percent of likely Republican voters haven't made up their minds. When it came to the candidates, about 33 percent of potential voters supported Rauner. Brady had more than 12 percent, Dillard nearly 11 percent and Rutherford at nearly 10 percent. The poll interviewed 1,001 voters from Feb. 12-25, of which 295 said they would vote in the primary. The poll had a margin of error of plus or minus 5.7 percentage points.
The debate – which featured some feisty moments – also covered the minimum wage, the state's expiring income tax increase and Illinois' new pension law aimed at reducing nearly $100 billion in unfunded liability.
On social issues, all four agreed on the death penalty, which the state abolished after former Gov. George Ryan halted all executions in Illinois in 2003 over fears that a flawed system had led to wrongful convictions of death row inmates.
Rutherford and Brady said it should be reinstated. Dillard said it should be reserved for the "worst of the worst," and Rauner said it could be a "workable option" when there was guilt beyond any doubt.
When it came to same-sex marriage, the candidates said they didn't personally object to it and talked of knowing gay couples. Illinois lawmakers approved same-sex marriage late last year and the new law is taking effect this year. The two senators voted against it, Rutherford has said he objected on religious grounds and Rauner has said the issue should have been put to voters.
When asked if they would invite same-sex marriage couples to the governor's residence in the state capital, all said they would be open to it.
"They're certainly welcome," Dillard said.
Still, with just two weeks until the primary election, the forum also featured a number of personal attacks.
Rauner, who has raised millions through his personal wealth and connections, has dominated the airwaves with advertisements. He's billed himself as an outsider who will clean up Springfield, something the other candidates have disputed. Rauner, who has been target of union attack ads on television, has called the others "career politicians."
On Tuesday, Brady likened Rauner to Illinois' imprisoned ex-governor for both alleged links to jailed business associates and a tense relationship with lawmakers. Rauner dismissed the claims, saying they had no merit.
"The more I hear Bruce Rauner speak, the more he sounds like Rod Blagojevich," Brady said.
Rutherford, the second candidate on TV, has spent recent weeks defending himself after a former employee filed a federal lawsuit alleging sexual harassment and political coercion. Rutherford has denied wrongdoing but acknowledged it has made things difficult on the campaign trail. Rutherford had said he would release the results of an investigation – which cost taxpayers $27,000 – but later said it was part of the ongoing lawsuit.
"When a federal lawsuit was filed, the rules and game changed," Rutherford said. "No, the report is not going to be released."
Dillard's ads began airing statewide on cable TV on Tuesday, the same day he vowed to "campaign like crazy."
Gov. Pat Quinn, a Chicago Democrat, is seeking re-election. He faces one primary challenger, activist Tio Hardiman.