CHICAGO -- Trailing in money and attention in the Illinois governor's race, Kirk Dillard and Bill Brady say they're not worried. They've been here before.
With the March 18 primary fast approaching, the two Republican state senators have been massively outspent and acknowledge polls showing them well behind the front runner. But they're reassured by the fact the same thing happened in a crowded field when they each sought the nomination in 2010. When those votes were counted, Brady finished on top and Dillard in second place.
Now both candidates are vowing to defy expectations again, despite serious fundraising disadvantages and having less than three weeks to election day. On Thursday they will join the two other GOP candidates — businessman Bruce Rauner and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford — for one of their last three televised debates.
"Things shift," said Dillard, who is aiming to finish on top after losing the primary by just 193 votes four years ago. "People suddenly with a couple weeks out will go 'Oh, now I need to start paying attention.'"
Though they see vastly different paths to victory, Brady and Dillard agree the person to beat on March 18 is Rauner, a venture capitalist who has raised millions more than the rest of the field and whose campaign they believe has been weakened by recent attacks from labor unions. Rutherford also has raised more money than Dillard and Brady, but his campaign took a hit when a former employee filed a federal lawsuit accusing Rutherford of sexual harassment and making him do campaign work while on government time.
Last week, Dillard called on Rutherford and Brady to drop out and make it a two-man race. Rutherford and Brady have said that's not happening. Brady said his internal polls — which he did not release — show him as the strongest of the three lawmakers.
"He's confused," Brady said. "This is a race between me and Mr. Rauner, not Mr. Rauner and Sen. Dillard."
Brady's view of the campaign is rejected by Dillard.
"Our internal research has shown that we're going up and the other candidates have come down, and that's a trend we like and it's clear that we have not only in our internal work and other polls that people have told us about, that have not been made public, interest group, that there conclusions are the same as ours," Dillard told The Associated Press Wednesday.
Political analyst Nick Kachiroubas says part of the problem for either candidacy is that both of them got in the race in the first place. Now, voters not wanting to cast ballots for Rauner are dividing their support between three lawmakers with similar political resumes.
"It could have been either one of theirs, but it can't be both, and that's the problem," said Kachiroubas, a visiting assistant professor at DePaul University's School of Public Service.
Dillard, who is giving up his state Senate seat to run for governor, says his campaign has gained momentum in recent weeks thanks in part to endorsements from two influential groups. On Wednesday, he picked up the backing of the Illinois Retired Teachers Association, which represents more than 35,000 retirees across the state. He also has received the endorsement of the Illinois Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, which gave $50,000 to his campaign and Dillard says is providing hundreds of volunteers statewide.
He has begun airing radio ads in downstate Illinois and expects former Gov. Jim Edgar — a well-respected Republican who has endorsed Dillard, his one-time chief of staff — to take a more visible role in the campaign.
Dillard says he has demonstrated an ability to work with Democrats and calls himself the only candidate who has enough statewide appeal to moderates and independents to defeat Gov. Pat Quinn in November.
The Hinsdale lawmaker is counting on a base of support in vote-rich DuPage County, which he has represented for 21 years. But he's also trying to lure so-called "crossover voters" who don't typically vote in a GOP primary. He said he has been telling his Democratic friends and left-leaning groups — including union members and a recent gathering of African American pastors and community leaders on Chicago's west side — to pull a Republican ballot and vote for him.
"I tell them, if you want to send a message to the Democratic party not to be taken for granted, find a Republican like me that you know respects you and will work with you .... and take that ballot this time," Dillard said.
Brady, who also ran unsuccessfully for the nomination in 2006, describes himself as the only candidate who is "truly both fiscally and socially conservative." The Bloomington lawmaker is relying on the party's conservative base and the name recognition he gained in 2010, when he won the primary and received 1.8 million votes in his failed bid to unseat Quinn. He said unlike four years ago, when his primary support came primarily from downstate, he expects to pick up votes throughout the state this time.
"In order to win, a Republican candidate for governor must win the base of the Republican Party," he said. "We have the base."
Brady said weeks of ads attacking Rauner and the allegations against Rutherford — all claims Rauner and Rutherford say are false — have caused both men to lose support. His campaign has picked up some of those voters, Brady said.
"People are starting to say, 'Wait a second,'" he said.
And there, Brady sees opportunity.
"We're just going to keep working," he said.