Daley departure breathes new energy into Republican race

Some Illinois Democrats might be suffering from Bill Daley Withdrawal Syndrome, but his exit from the race for governor does one thing:

It infuses energy and focus into the Republican gubernatorial primary, with candidates asking GOP voters this question:

Who can defeat incumbent Democratic Gov. Patrick Quinn?

"I don't think Quinn is strong," state Rep. Jack Franks, the Marengo Democrat and Quinn critic, told me after Daley withdrew. "But the Republicans? They're going to be slicing each other up. It's the time of the knives for them."

And on Tuesday, Republicans had their knives out, like master butchers on a beef neck, the tip close to the bone.

"Daley's withdrawal is big news," said one candidate, state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale, in a Tuesday interview on my radio program on WLS-AM 890. "I've never underestimated Pat Quinn, and Republicans should just not assume we're going to win the election. You've got to nominate the right person."

But which one is that?

I'm certain to outrage some Republican tribes, but this is how the GOP race looks to me.

On top is multimillionaire businessman Bruce Rauner, who is making the state's pension mess and the public employee unions the focus of his campaign. He's got the cash. He doesn't care if he ruffles Springfield sensibilities, and that's needed to attack the $100 billion pension deficit that's choking the state. And Rauner doesn't need the job.

Dillard, the former chief of staff to former Gov. Jim Edgar, is next. He lost the last gubernatorial primary to Republican Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington by fewer than 200 votes.

And Brady lost to Quinn by fewer than 32,000 votes in the last general election. Brady is seeking a rematch with Quinn in 2014.

Illinois state Treasurer Dan Rutherford is also in the mix, and I hope to spend time with him soon. I've already interviewed Rauner at length in this space.

On Tuesday, Dillard and Brady were my radio guests, and they wasted no time going after Rauner, painting the businessman as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's surrogate candidate.

"I've been there, I know how to use the governor's office to lead. I don't want to be king, like Mr. Rauner," Dillard said. "… It's very clear that Mr. Rauner is now, with Bill Daley out, Mayor Emanuel's choice. I think you want someone who is independent from the mayor of Chicago."

With Republican voters finally paying attention, it was a smart time for Dillard to strike, and Rauner makes no secret of the fact that he helped Emanuel in business deals after the Rahmfather left the Clinton administration.

Dillard said he had a decent working relationship with Emanuel, "but I'm not part of his inner circle as is Bruce Rauner. … That is not a healthy governmental relationship for a Republican governor."

The Rauner-Emanuel relationship is ground for legitimate inquiry, but so, too, is Dillard's decision to cut a campaign commercial for Democrat Barack Obama when he first ran for president.

Dillard's attack on Rauner was smoothly done. He's been around, and he's adept at the verbal knife work. He learned from the masters, serving as a top aide to former Gov. Jim Thompson before he was Edgar's chief of staff.

Edgar is often cast as a reformer, though it was Edgar who famously wrote a letter seeking mercy in the federal sentencing of his longtime friend, the corrupt Republican combine shadow boss "Big" Bill Cellini.

So there are connections all around.

"In the estimation of the last two clean and competent Republican governors — no matter what you think of Jim Edgar and Jim Thompson — they have said in a letter they believe I'm the only Republican that can win," Dillard said. "I understand the enormity of the office. I need to be governor to lead this state and make it work again. Don't assume that Pat Quinn is a pushover because he is not."

Later it was Brady's turn. His loss against a weakened Quinn the last time out is not a ringing endorsement for another chance, but he fought for it Tuesday.

And he, too, sought to portray the businessman as Emanuel's candidate. But he also took a few swipes at Dillard for cutting that Obama campaign commercial.

"Sen. Dillard has this cloud of good old boy politics in his background," Brady said. "But probably more important is that Republican primary voters won't support a candidate who ran a television ad for President Barack Obama."

Daley's withdrawal leaves Quinn alone, barring a last-minute candidate, but don't forget that Boss Madigan works best with a Republican governor, and there is much bloody political work ahead if the state is to remain solvent.

That means debates on tax increases or heavy cuts in services, and a war building with the public unions.

Some of you thought I took it too easy on Bill Daley, and told me so. I thought he was a serious, thoughtful candidate who deserved consideration, and I haven't changed my mind.

But it was the votes he couldn't get that changed his mind. Common wisdom suggested a Daley would have trouble getting votes south of I-80. But after his brother's wrought-iron-fisted reign as mayor, it was doubtful that Bill could get many votes south of Archer Avenue.

"The voters of Illinois deserve someone who's going to commit — not just to a tough campaign but to the more difficult job of governing the state," Daley said Tuesday. "A state which deserves better."

It does deserve better.

But for decade after decade, it hasn't been about the state. It's been about the bosses.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass

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