(MCT) SPRINGFIELD — Out-of-power Republicans rolled out four candidates for governor at an Illinois State Fair rally Thursday that focused on regaining relevance by taking back the state's top job.
The contenders come with resumes as varied as the flavors of the cotton candy and ice cream at the fairgrounds: a state senator who narrowly lost the 2010 governor's race, another even more narrowly defeated in the primary election last time around, a third politician who won a down-ballot race for treasurer and a wealthy newcomer who rode into town on a motorcycle and picked up the lunch tab.
"I'd like to put them all in a blender, and we'd have a great recipe for success," said Jack Dorgan, the Illinois Republican Party's new chairman.
Dorgan didn't elaborate on the specific qualities he likes about each candidate, but in a best-possible-light reading he could be referring to state Sen. Bill Brady's central-casting looks, Sen. Kirk Dillard's brain, Treasurer Dan Rutherford's work ethic and venture capitalist Bruce Rauner's money.
The candidates came with sets of supporters and showed no qualms about their intended target: the governor's office held by Democrat Pat Quinn. One popular bumper sticker showed the partisan crowd's distaste: "Blagojevich: No Longer Our Worst Governor."
It's a tall task, to be sure. The Illinois GOP has been out in the political wilderness since former Republican Gov. George Ryan's corruption cost them the governor's mansion in November 2002. Not even the scandal-fueled implosion of imprisoned former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich was enough for a state Republican rebirth in 2010 as Illinois has become a solidly blue state.
Brady, a veteran lawmaker from Bloomington who lost to Quinn three years ago, appeared laced up and ready to go a day after Quinn quipped that his vanquished opponent was still looking for his running shoes.
"Gov. Quinn, I've got my running shoes on today, and 'game on tomorrow,'" Brady said, adding that he wants to build on the "foundation we started and finish the job."
Dillard, a senator from Hinsdale who lost the 2010 governor primary to Brady by 193 votes, said he is the only candidate who "brings the conservative wing of the party and the moderate wing together." Dillard said he has the ability to work with the "Chicago-controlled Democratic legislature to get it to do things that's not in its DNA to do — like live within its means."
The senator drew criticism in his last bid for governor because he cut an early ad for Democrat Barack Obama's presidential campaign before Obama's 2008 upset win in Iowa that launched his path to the White House. Dillard sought to bolster his Republican credentials by appearing at a local pizza joint with his former boss, moderate Gov. Jim Edgar, whom he called "the last clean and competent governor of the state."
In turn, Rutherford pointed out that he is the only one of the four GOP governor candidates who has "actually won a statewide race."
"Bottom line is I am the guy who can win this race," Rutherford said. He told the crowd his successful race for treasurer showed he can tap into the cross section of voters in heavily Democratic Chicago.
Rauner, who already has spent big money on the race and is expected to pour in more, vowed to rebuild Illinois into a viable two-party state but brushed off myriad questions about where he stands on the issues. Rauner rode in on a motorcycle to meet with party officials but wouldn't even say whether he supports the idea of requiring motorcycle riders to wear helmets.
The evasiveness that showed Rauner can stick to a script, but it opened him up to a round of criticism from rivals.
Brady said voters need to know where candidates stand, and Dillard said he comes with "experience money can't buy."
Only one candidate for treasurer showed up: DuPage County Auditor Bob Grogan. DuPage's former County Board chairman, Bob Schillerstrom, was absent but put out a statement that he is "continuing to explore a potential run for state treasurer but has not made a final determination."
That fueled talk that House Republican leader Tom Cross of Oswego may be eyeing the treasurer post as he struggles to maintain control of a divided caucus. But Cross, a mainstay at past state fairs, did not attend Thursday. A spokeswoman said Cross was unavailable because he was helping to get his daughter ready to move back to college.
At the fairgrounds, Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who is seeking re-election, said Democrats' one-party rule of the governor's office and General Assembly will leave Illinois with a Christmas gift of debt that will hit $9 billion.
In a nod to the difficult road ahead, Republicans waved signs and chanted: "Never Give Up."
They saved their loudest applause for the man who inspired the mantra, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, who won cheers as the congressman, who is recovering from a stroke, walked across the stage with the aid of a cane.
"We are the ones who are going to rescue Illinois," Kirk said.
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