In first debate, gov candidates focused on zingers, not issues

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Carol Marin moderated a forum with , from left, Democratric candidate J.B. Pritzker, Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner, Libertarian candidate Kash Jackson and Conservative candidate Sam McCann Thursday. | NBC Chicago

The first gubernatorial debate of the 2018 general election was almost all heat and no light. Instead of talking about where they want to take the state, the candidates focused mainly on delivering rehearsed zingers at other people in the race.

Gov. Bruce Rauner and Sen. Sam McCann, the Conservative Party candidate, crafted some of the better put-downs, so they dominated the news coverage. News coverage always follows conflict, and that debate was definitely chock full of conflict.


Rauner is convinced that J.B. Pritzker is a tool of the machine and that the machine is out to get him. The machine is most definitely out to get him, but he came off as undignified and angry. Maybe I’m just way out of touch, but I’d like to see a grownup as governor. Instead, it was one nasty wisecrack after another from Rauner. Every word seemed to be drenched in bile.

Sen. McCann, who Rauner rightly noted was, um, helped into the race by allies of House Speaker Michael Madigan to draw conservative and Downstate votes away from the incumbent, interrupted both Rauner and Democratic nominee Pritzker time and again to deliver putdowns and what was supposed to pass for homespun wisdom.

McCann talked about how he’d watched TV news in his Chicago hotel room the night before and was shocked at the coverage of all the crime – as if this was his first visit to the state’s largest city. I frankly can’t tell if the man is even running a campaign. If he’s making speeches out on the hustings, there’s been practically no coverage. He appears to have one job and only one job and he did that job at the debate.

Pritzker also stuck closely to his script and dodged and weaved around legitimate questions about his disconnected toilets in his unused mansion that got him a property tax break, and what he wants to do about graduated income tax rates.

Pritzker faithfully stayed on his campaign’s game plan of making sure everyone in Illinois knows that Rauner is a liar and a failure. Calling Rauner a liar is a clever way of deflecting Rauner’s claims about Pritzker: You can’t believe Rauner’s attacks because he’s a liar. And, hey, it’s not like Pritzker’s all wrong. Rauner even lied about his own grandfather, claiming he was born in Sweden when he was actually born in Wisconsin. And the governor kept telling that lie after he was publicly called out on it. Every single thing he says has to be fact-checked, starting with whether or not he spoke on the phone with House Speaker Michael Madigan on election night four years ago (he said he did, but he didn’t).

Libertarian Kash Jackson was the least offensive, but to say he has no chance would be insulting the concept of chance.

Anyway, while the debate should’ve been about Illinois, it was all about the candidates. I don’t care if they think their opponents are the worst people in the world. I get the politics of it, but I still don’t care. Rauner is so unpopular that he has to bring Pritzker down to his level. Pritzker isn’t beloved, so he has to keep his boot on Rauner’s political throat. McCann’s job is to attack Rauner from his right flank.

They all say this campaign is about the “character” of their opponents. Fine. It’s their money (literally, in the case of Rauner and Pritzker). But the moderator of the next debate needs to make sure we don’t again get the equivalent of a professional wrestling match. Also, how about talking about your own character, gentlemen?

As to who “won,” I would say nobody lost. You could say that nobody losing means the governor actually lost because he’s so far behind in the polls. But this isn’t like a presidential debate, where half the country tunes in. It was on one TV channel in one part of the state, not all of them everywhere. Most people will either get their information from post-debate news coverage or social media or they won’t get any information at all.

The big impact will be advertising. We’ll have to see if the campaigns can pull any particularly damaging clips from the debate to use in TV ads, as the Rauner campaign did with Jeanne Ives in the primary. Most people thought she won the Tribune editorial board debate, but she ended up being the big loser because her soft words about Speaker Madigan were used by Rauner to great effect.

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