By Benjamin Yount | Illinois Watchdog
PEORIA, Ill. — Illinois’ four candidates for governor weren’t trying to persuade the journalists who quizzed them during Thursday’s debate. Nor were they trying to persuade the state’s voters. Not all of them, anyway.
The Republican candidates were mostly speaking to, well , Republicans, and the faithful were listening.
“The activists that are on the ground doing all of the hard work, we really are looking for a leader,” Mike Bigger, an Illinois Republican State Central committeeman, said Thursday. “We want somebody we can get excited about, and be happy to be out there for in 10-degree weather pounding yard signs into somebody’s yard.”
“Primaries are low turn-out affairs. They are generally (driven by) the most active people in a political party,” said David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University. “(The candidates) are going to be talking to these activists; these precinct committeeman and ward captains around the state who really have an impact on who wins the primary.”
Yepsen said polls show many GOP voters still don’t know who they want as their candidate — “undecided” now leads the field.
Bigger said the Republican Party faithful are waiting for a candidate to prove he’s a leader.
“I think what we’re looking for is a candidate that can rise to the top, and be our clear choice” Bigger said.
“I am not a Republican with horns and a tail,” state treasurer and candidate Dan Rutherford said, trying to appeal to Democrats and Independents.
Rutherford said even conservative primary voters respect that.
“Republicans in Illinois today are ready for someone who is being blunt and candid,” Rutherford said.
GOP frontrunner Bruce Rauner had to answer questions about whether his lead in the polls and fundraising lead would translate into votes come March.
“We have 2,000 volunteers signed-up in our campaign,” Rauner said. “We have college kids, we have high school kids, and we even have folks who are traditionally Democrats.”
The 2010 GOP nominee, Bill Brady, echoed a recent Republican president when he talked about his appeal to primary voters.
“I think people are looking for someone who’s conservative, particularly a fiscal conservative,” Brady said Thursday night. “But I also think people want someone who is compassionate. As George W. Bush said, ‘A ‘compassionate conservative’.”
Kirk Dillard, who has been running toward the conservative base of the Republican Party so far this year, said courting conservative primary voters without alienating moderates in November is a “two-step dance.”
“These activists in the Republican Party are going to be looking at this (debate), looking for someone they like and agree with and looking for someone who can win.” Yepsen said.
Contact Benjamin Yount at Ben@IllinoisWatchdog.org and find him on Twitter @BenYount.