The four men seeking the Republican nomination for Illinois governor held their final scheduled downstate debate Tuesday night, February 18, in Springfield.
With political newcomer Bruce Rauner leading in the polls and in fundraising, debates are a chance for the three other candidates to talk directly to voters, free of charge.
That dynamic might have prompted this comment from one of those candidates - Treasurer Dan Rutherford: "I see Illinois now in the worst blood sport I've ever seen it. This is not easy to stand up and run in the state of Illinois."
Rutherford's campaign has been in virtual freefall since an employee who has since left for another government job filed a federal lawsuit accusing Rutherford of sexual harassment and political coercion.
As if already dismissing him as a contender, none of Rutherford's opponents mentioned his troubles. The scandal only came up when a debate panelist asked Rutherford why he's refusing to make public the results of an investigation he commissioned at taxpayer expense. Rutherford says he wants to share the results, but isn't, because he's following his attorney's advice.
Following the debate, Rutherford acknowledged his campaign would be better off if he released the findings, though he says he doesn't know what the investigator found because he hasn't read it.
"You do not ignore counsel's advice when you're dealing with a federal lawsuit," he said. "I'm absolutely not frightened. And that is even more so why I would like to have that report released."
Rutherford has accusations of his own: that Rauner is somehow to blame. But when pressed to offer proof, Rutherford acknowledged he had none.
For his part, Rauner seemed to be trying to stay above the fray. To questions about pensions, how much of the state workforce should be unionized, and how he would deal with the state budget, Rauner gave vague answers, repeating the campaign rhetoric he's been using on TV commercials for months.
Rauner only deviated when asked about his involvement in helping his daughter's gain admission to an elite Chicago high school to which he later contributed money. A debate panelist noted that Rauner had initially said he didn't talk about his daughter's application with then Chicago schools chief Arne Duncan, but later admitted to doing so.
Rauner apologized, then attempted to reject any implication his daughter was ultimately admitted because of clout.
"Frankly, my wife and I, we have some disagreement about who talked to who when," Rauner said. "I talk to Arne all the time. I don't really recall talking to him about this much. The reality is neither my wife or I asked for special favors."
That wasn't enough to satisfy Senator Kirk Dillard, of Hinsdale, who says it's one of many reasons Republican voters ought to be suspicious of Rauner.
Dillard went on to batter Rauner for his investment firm's connection to Stuart Levine, a former state official involved in the corruption that sent ex-governor Rod Blagojevich to prison.
"He's very much someone with a pattern of pay to play politics in his personal, professional and political life. There's a reason he doesn't show up at any of these forums."
Rauner wasn't around to respond to that post-debate criticism. While Brady, Dillard and Rutherford all were available to answer questions afterward, Rauner hurried through a back door as soon as the debate ended.
Dillard, who narrowly missed winning the Republican nomination four years ago, also lashed out at the 2010 nominee, Senator Bill Brady of Bloomington.
For his part, Brady defended his positions on social issues, including his anti-abortion stance -- which is widely believed to have been a big factor in his loss four years ago to Gov. Pat Quinn.
"No governor in this country can eliminate a woman's right to choose. But I'm not going to back away from my pro-life beliefs. I believe government has an obligation to protect innocent human life. And I believe that as a Republican you need to be socially and fiscally conservative to build your base and go on and win."
Brady then took a quick swipe at Rauner, and at Dillard, for his part in a 2008 Barack Obama primary ad.
"Senator Dillard's ad for Obama, saying he'd serve our country well, as President of the United States is a non-starter amongst Republicans and frankly independents."
All of the debate jabs are indicators of that "blood sport" Rutherford was talking about.
Dillard defends the tough talk, saying he's only bringing up issues that have been in the news, trying to get his party to steer clear of someone who's unelectable in a general election.
"The Republican Party needs to elect someone who can win statewide, and actually beat Pat Quinn," Dillard said. "And for my party to nominate another wounded duck for governor sends this state permanently down the drain."
After all, despite their attacks against each another, the men saved their harshest criticism for Quinn. The incumbent governor is facing a nominal challenge in the Democratic primary from Tio Hardiman, the former director of an anti-violence organization. Quinn, however, is refusing to debate Hardiman.
Republicans' latest debate came one month, to the day, before the primary election.