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Blagojevich, Topinka spar in first debate

By Sean Crawford & Ben Calhoun, Illinois Public Radio


Decatur, Ill. – There were competing versions of reality and plenty of personal shots during Illinois' first formal debate in the race for governor Monday night.

Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich and Republican challenger Judy Baar Topinka met in Decatur on the campus of Milliken University.

Blagojevich went into thedebate with a massive fundraising lead, and trying to hold onto a sizable lead in the polls. Topinka went in needing to gain some ground.

Both candidates have called for more than debates - but after a series of failed joint appearances - this was the first formal one of the fall campaign.

In keeping with the race's growing flow of negative ads - it took only four minutes for things to get dicey. Blagojevich and Topinka went at it on everything from jobs, ethics and taxes - to soybeans.

They even lashed out at their opponent when their plans overlapped - like on education, when Blagojevich attacked Topinka's plan because it depended on gambling money, namely a casino in Chicago, which the governor called "a massive expansion of gambling that has not chance of passing whatsoever." Topinka, meanwhile, criticized Blagojevich's plan for also relying on gambling money, namely a failed attempt to legalize keno.

Both candidates pushed their own versions of history and cited different statistics on the same topic. So much so - that at point, the debate became a simple war over credibility.

Ultimately, the scuffle shook out like this: Blagojevich attributed Illinois' problems to years of Republican leadership - and to former Governor George Ryan - whom he linked to Topinka. "All the corruption swirling about, more than 50 indictments, Treasurer Topinka didn't say a word in opposition, didn't lift a finger. She went along and got along."

Blagojevich said his programs and initiatives on things like preschool and health insurance have moved the state in the right direction.

Topinka attacked the strategies the Governor's used to pay for his initiatives. She also pointed to a the federal investigation of state government - accusing Blagojevich of the same kind of ethical breaches that recently got former Governor Ryan convicted. "You've said you were going to solve the problems in the state, in fact you said they are solved. But I don't think you did what you promised, and you did promise."

Both campaigns say they want more debates. But citing scheduling problems say they have been able to confirm only one more date in late October. Green Party Candidate Rich Whitney has recently been polling at more than 5% - but was not invited to participate in last nights debate.

News Radio 780 and the Illinois Radio Network, which organized the debate - say that's because Whitney was legally confirmed as a candidate after Topinka and Blagojevich accepted.