They gathered last night at the Performance Hall in the Logan Center for the Arts in the heart of the University of Chicago campus. Bruce Rauner, who has given his campaign $6 million out of his own pocket, looks like he’s going to get the chance on March 18 to take on Pat Quinn in the November election—i.e. to take on Quinn and the Democratic party and the unions and trial lawyers, et al, who are not about to hand the statehouse to a man who calls himself a Republican  (I think he’s closer in philosophy to Rahm Emanuel or Mike Bloomberg than, say, Scott Walker or Rick Synder) and is crusading for term limits in Illinois.

Rauner, who charged that his three opponents have all taken union money, inveighed last night against “government unions … trial lawyers…. [who] run Springfield; they bought it, they own it,” and reported that he has almost enough signatures to put a proposed constitutional amendment on legislative term limits on the ballot. (He has pledged to limit himself to two terms.)

My gut tells me that this has become a Rauner/Kirk Dillard battle. Bill Brady (who lost to Quinn in 2010 after besting Dillard by 193 votes in the primary) and state treasurer Dan Rutherford (handicapped by a federal sexual harassment and political-work-on-state-time lawsuit, which will be impossible to refute before the primary, less than two weeks away) are effectively out of it. Watching their faces and body language last night makes me believe they know it.

Brady had a few moments of feistiness—comparing Rauner to the incarcerated Blago wasn’t one of them—and Rutherford was the most likeable, except that he has this cloud hanging over him that will drench any victory-march fantasy to which he might still cling.

Here’s a sample of the highlights and lowlights of a long program, moderated by WMAQ-TV’s 5’s Carol Marin, and sponsored by WMAQ, David Axelrod’s Institute of Politics, and the Harris School of Public Policy. The first hour was televised, an additional half hour followed, and then came a short “press availability” at which only Dillard and Brady, both tired and testy, showed up.

  • The four stood beside each other at matching podiums for 90 minutes, rail-thin Rauner at the far left towering over the portly Dillard next to him. My takeaway from the concluding presser is that Dillard is so angry with Rauner that he could not quite bring himself to say the words that if Rauner were the party’s nominee, Dillard would endorse him.
  • Rauner, Brady, and Dillard are enamored with Republican governors, Indiana’s former governor Mitch Daniels chief among them. He’s a “personal role model” for Rauner who said, “I’ve been studying with the great governors of America [which also include Scott Walker, Jeb Bush, and Michigan’s Rick Synder] for the last couple of years.”
  • Rutherford said pointedly that he has doesn’t have the “clout” to study with governors, but instead learns from the needs of the citizens of Illinois with whom he interacts as state treasurer.  “I studied the people of Illinois, someone who has a mother in a nursing home”—take that Rauner, who has been slammed for his former private equity firm’s ownership of an allegedly substandard nursing home company.
  • Dillard called Daniels “tremendous,” but said he’s “eclectic” and quipped, “I’m Kirk Dillard but I copy ideas from other states that are good.” Brady said he’d take “bits and pieces” from each of the republican governors mentioned, and specified Jeb Bush on education policy and Bobby Jindal on economic development.
  • Dillard, who lives in Hinsdale, railed against the dominance in Illinois of Cook County politicians, noting “all four legislative leaders are from Cook County.” Rauner was the only Cook County resident on stage—Brady is from Bloomington and Rutherford from Chenoa—so the dig was obviously aimed at the first-time candidate. Noting that he’s from DuPage County, Dillard, who has a strong Chicago accent,  said, “Just outside of Cook County there’s a place called Illinois.”
  • To news that Rauner has had breakfast with Mike Madigan and has met with John Cullerton, Bill Brady said he wouldn’t do that. “I’m a reliable Republican,” he explained.  Rutherford volunteered that Mike Madigan had come to his birthday party but had not brought along a present.
  • In hitting Quinn for running “one of the most hostile states for business in America; …[a man] who thinks government spending and government programs are creating jobs,” Rauner vowed to move to Springfield and take no salary and no pension and to “fly around the nation… recruiting companies to come to Illinois after we change our regulatory burden and our tax burden.” (He didn’t say if he’d be using a private plane or a state plane.)
  • On relations with Rahm Emanuel, Rauner’s opponents wanted to portray the two as BFFs.  “I did not make Mayor Emanuel a wealthy man by probably giving him $16 million,” said Dillard. “That being said, I have a good professional relationship with Mayor Emanuel.” Dillard vowed that he’d repeat what he did as Gov. Jim Edgar’s chief of staff when dealing with then-Mayor Rich Daley: “I’ll be able to tell Rahm Emanuel no.”
  • Rauner countered that he and Rahm “disagree on most things,” mentioning that he thinks that “Obamacare” will “dwarf our pension problem as a financial disaster” for Illinois. Rauner said he’d work with Rahm on pension reform, but all four said they’d be opposed to helping Rahm delay a $600 million increase in police and fire pensions. Rutherford said he and Rahm are “conversant,” but it’s not like they meet for dinner at Chicago Cut.
  • The Blago reference?  “The more I hear Bruce Rauner speak,” Bill Brady said, “the more he sounds like Rod Blagojevich,” adding that the next governor needs to be “decisive,” not “divisive,” but neglecting to mention examples of Rauner’s failure to be decisive. Brady also charged Rauner with being “tied to more felons that are in jail than I think Rod Blagojevich,” primarily a reference to Stuart Levine. (Rauner’s firm paid Levine, who sat on the Teachers Retirement System board,  a monthly $25,000 consulting fee.) Rauner, whose firm had state pension business, has denied knowing Levine.
  • Dillard and Brady accused Rauner, who raised $8 million beyond his own $6 million contribution, far more than raised by the others combined, of trying to buy the race.  Dillard called that fact “obscene.” 
  • All four did agree on issues such as restoring the death penalty in Illinois for the most serious crimes, and they also agreed on the virtues of the concealed carry law—the Second Amendment seemed unthreatened on that stage. They also all said that they would host same-sex couples in the governor’s mansion, in which all would presumably spend more time than did Blago or Quinn.
  • On the subject of abortion, Brady, Dillard and Rutherford said they’re pro-life,  but that governors can’t do anything about a federal ruling (i.e. Roe v Wade). Rauner gave the most nuanced answer; the one that should play best in a general election: "I believe abortion is a tragedy. It's a sad event I wish didn't occur.” He said that abortion is a decision that should be between a woman, her family and her doctor.
  • Dillard, whose tone was definitely the most bitter, called Rauner “unelectable.”  Unfortunately for Dillard, that might be true in the general election, but not in the primary.

Postscript: Dillard, who had already won the endorsement of the Illinois Education Association and the Illinois Federation of Teachers, today added the endorsement of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 31. Expect an ad from Rauner turning that endorsement of Dillard into an indictment of Dillard.

Hold on to your ear muffs, the race is finally heating up.