URBANA - Judy Baar Topinka's rivals stepped up their criticism of the front-runner Friday as they scrambled for traction in the battle for the Republican nomination for governor.
They scolded her for skipping a debate. They questioned her ability to fight government corruption. They suggested she would raise taxes if elected.
Businessman Jim Oberweis, running second in the polls, was particularly outspoken.
When other candidates agreed during their debate that raising taxes would hurt the state, Oberweis said Topinka would have a different view. "Sounds like we need Judy here to argue in favor of a tax increase," he quipped.
And earlier in the day, Oberweis said Topinka's long career as a lawmaker and state treasurer means she won't be able to clean up state government.
State Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington, meanwhile, teed off on Topinka's decision to pull out of the hour-long debate sponsored by WILL-TV. It was the second debate she has skipped recently.
"She's playing hide and seek," Brady said. "She's hiding while the voters are seeking to find out the truth of her positions."
Topinka's staff called the criticism "some desperate tactics from some desperate campaigns."
"Illinois voters know that when trailing campaigns get desperate, they throw mud," said Topinka aide Eric Robinson.
Oberweis, Brady and the third major candidate, Chicago businessman Ron Gidwitz, also had plenty to say about Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich.
They accused him of driving jobs out of state by increasing a host of business fees and taxes. The first-term governor has plunged the state deep into debt and spent money it doesn't have, they charged, and he has allowed corruption to flourish.
"This governor can't be trusted," Brady said.
But all the candidates were vague about how to balance the budget.
Oberweis talked about saving money by ending government corruption. Brady said he would overhaul state Medicaid programs to cut costs. Gidwitz emphasized increasing revenues by creating jobs.
It was the second forum of the day for the candidates. They met earlier in a closed-door session with the Chicago Tribune editorial board.
During that event, Topinka was pressed on whether her political ally, Bob Kjellander, should step down as treasurer for the Republican National Committee. His lobbying business has involved the administrations of George Ryan, now facing federal corruption charges, and Blagojevich, who has been accused by Republican critics of ignoring ethics problems.
Topinka refused to take a position on Kjellander, said several people who attended the session.
"She just wouldn't answer the question," Brady said.
Topinka did criticize Kjellander as "part of systemic problem," but stopped short of calling for him to relinquish his position.
Brady, however, for the first time publicly called for Kjellander to step aside. He did not accuse Kjellander of misconduct but said the political insider is creating a perception problem for the GOP.
Brady also reserved some criticism for Oberweis, saying the businessman has problems of his own. He has been accused of improperly using his dairy business to support his political campaign, and has accepted $200,000 from the Family Taxpayers Network, a group that owes tens of thousands of dollars in fines for campaign reporting violations.
Blagojevich is pushing for a new round of spending on roads, transit systems and schools. He has attacked Republicans for not backing the $3.2 billion plan, although his critics say he has not come up with a reliable way to pay for it.
At the Urbana debate, Gidwitz argued the state cannot afford any construction program at all right now, and Brady said he would support only $300 million to $400 million a year. Oberweis was vague on what he would back.
Asked about their political role models, Gidwitz named Teddy Roosevelt, and Oberweis mentioned both Ronald Reagan and corruption-fighting prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald.
"I'm a Roman Catholic, and I grew up modeling myself after - asking myself the question 'What would Jesus do?"' Brady said, before praising Abraham Lincoln.
All the candidates pledged to support whoever wins the Republican nomination, although Oberweis said he would be less enthusiastic about backing Topinka if she wins.
A recent Chicago Tribune/WGN-TV poll showed Topinka with 38 percent support, compared to 17 percent for Oberweis, 11 percent for Gidwitz and 8 percent for Brady. The poll of 600 likely Republican primary voters found that 25 percent were undecided. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.