Candidates for governor clash in southern Illinois forum - WSIL-TV 3 Southern Illinois

Candidates for governor clash in southern Illinois forum

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CARBONDALE -- All six Democratic candidates for governor shared the stage Tuesday night in a contentious forum at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, where they clashed over FBI recordings, Rod Blagojevich and tax returns.

The candidates acknowledged their party's failure to connect with voters in a region President Donald Trump won overwhelmingly in 2016.

But they didn't sugarcoat their feelings about Trump.

"I don't care what part of the state I'm in, Donald Trump is still a racist and a xenophobe and a misogynist and a homophobe and I'm going to call him that," said J.B. Pritzker.

"Donald Trump is a racist and a bigot. That doesn't mean his supporters are," said state Sen. Daniel Biss.

Businessman Chris Kennedy added "if we don't restore the American Dream," he believes the country "will elect somebody worse than Trump."

The focus shifted to the hot-button issue dominating the campaign: Gov. Bruce Rauner's political ad of FBI recordings of conversations between disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Pritzker.

The moderator asked the candidates if they would defend Pritzker against Rauner's attack, in the way Vermont U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders defended former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton amid questions about her emails.

"I will personally say this. I think J.B. is innocent, as long as there's no money that's been exchanged," said candidate Bob Daiber, a school superintendent from Madison County.

Pritzker's two main opponents, Biss and Kennedy, argued the FBI ad would follow Pritzker into the general election, if he won the Democratic nomination.

"That tape makes J.B. Pritzker unelectable in a general election," said Kennedy. "The truth is just because you don't break a law doesn't mean you're innocent."

Biss said the ad could sink Illinois Democrats.

"I want us to picture October. There's a blue wave building across the country," said Biss. "Except in Illinois, we're forced to play defense about Rod Blagojevich and FBI recordings. That is not good for Democrats."

Defending himself, Pritzker tried to cast the ad as proof Rauner is afraid to face him in the general election.

"Let's not be naive, Bruce Rauner is going to attack anyone who is the Democratic nominee, anyone he thinks he can't beat," said Pritzker. "I think we should stop allowing Bruce Rauner to play games in our Democratic primary and get about the important business of beating him."

Candidates also clashed over tax returns.

"I think it's actually astonishing, astonishing that in the era of Donald Trump two candidates on this stage, Chris Kennedy and J.B. Pritzker, will not release their full tax returns," said Biss.

The moderator asked Kennedy if voters could get a pledge from him to release his full tax returns before the March 20 primary. 

"No you can't," responded Kennedy.

Kennedy and Pritzker said they've shared enough information about their finances to satisfy voter concerns.

But critics say what they've released barely skims the surface, and doesn't offer a full detail of how they make their money or any tax loopholes they might have taken advantage of. 

With just weeks to go before the primary, a new poll from We Ask America, which was taken before the forum, shows Pritzker remains the frontrunner, with Biss gaining ground, climbing into a solid second place.

But the poll also shows more than a third of voters remain undecided.

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