With the primary eight days away, the contest for the Republican gubernatorial nomination has taken center stage, with endorsements rolling in and poll numbers being crunched, spun and promoted/downplayed by all.

So let’s go around the Illinois media horn for the weekend.

DILLARD, BRADY ENDORSED

Last week Bruce Rauner landed perhaps the most coveted endorsement of the four-man Republican primary when the Chicago Tribune gave him its blessing. The suburban Daily Herald already had endorsed State Sen. Kirk Dillard, R-Hinsdale.

The weekend brought more good news for Dillard, who picked up the support of the capital city’s daily newspaper, The State Journal-Register, and the Peoria Journal-Star.

From the SJ-R endorsement:

Dillard, a suburban state senator from Hinsdale since 1993 and former chief of staff for former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, has a record of moderate views on fiscal and economic matters involving the state. In a state whose books are so dramatically out of whack, why look for moderation in a leader? Because reason and moderation — not heavy-handed, uncompromising pledges to take a jackhammer to Illinois government — are how good leaders get things done.

Dillard honed some of his political skills in the Edgar administration and counts the former governor among his allies. Edgar served two terms as governor and enjoyed high approval ratings. A person doesn’t rise as far as Dillard did in the administration of one of the state’s most competent and popular governors without having skills to back it up.

Dillard wisely chose Tracy, a state representative from the central Illinois community of Mount Sterling, as his running mate. Tracy has been in the legislature since 2006. Her family owns Dot Foods in Mount Sterling, and she was born and raised in southern Illinois, giving her a unique appreciation for all parts of Illinois. Of all the running mates in this primary, Tracy has the most experience in state government and would be the best lieutenant governor to take over for the governor should he become unable to serve.

Curiously, Rauner apparently declined to meet with either the Springfield or Peoria papers, a fact emphasized in the Journal-Star’s Dillard endorsement:

We would have liked to sit down with Rauner to discuss his ideas, but he did not respond to an invitation to interview or to answer the questions we sent his way. Evidently we were not alone in that regard. From what we’ve been able to gather from other sources, he intends to “shake up Springfield”; to focus on job creation in a state with nearly the highest unemployment in America; to get there by reversing the 2011 income tax increase, overhauling the tax code and stripping regulations; to install a 401(k)-style retirement benefit system in place of the new pension reform law he opposed; to improve public education with more charter schools. Oh, and he also wants term limits, a higher minimum wage (after initially demanding a lower one) and, judging by his rhetoric, he wouldn’t object to a world without labor unions.

We’d say this: Illinois elects a governor, not a king, and a Rauner with no previous government experience would have to work with the Legislature and state employee groups he disdains whether he likes it or not. We don’t envision House Speaker Michael Madigan or Senate President John Cullerton taking any governor’s orders.

State Sen. Bill Brady, who beat Dillard by a mere 193 votes to win the 2010 nomination before losing to Pat Quinn, earned the backing of the Rockford Register Star. The paper says it believes Brady would be running as the incumbent today had he campaigned harder four years ago.

Brady could have won if he had campaigned more aggressively. Instead, he allowed the opposition to define him as further to the right than most Illinoisans are comfortable with. Brady makes no apologies for his social views and says he will counter any attacks during this campaign.

Brady rightly concentrated on economic issues during the last campaign and will again this year. Illinois has the third-worst unemployment rate in the nation, the worst pension liability and is unable to pay its bills in a timely manner. Those are the issues that matter.

As a state senator, Brady voted for pension reform, distinguishing himself from colleague and fellow GOP gubernatorial hopeful Kirk Dillard. Brady acknowledges that the pension reform bill was not perfect and pledges to use the savings to cut taxes.

He also wants to dismantle the State Board of Education and put education under the governor’s office to increase accountability. That’s ambitious, but if Illinois schools are going to improve, there needs to be a shake-up.

TOUGH VOTES

The Chicago Tribune in its Sunday editorial encourages voters to reward candidates who “took a tough vote” by voting in December for a controversial pension reform bill that will “save this state and its pension funds from financial ruin.”

It’s worth noting that among the Republican gubernatorial candidates, only Brady supported and voted for that bill, though he didn’t get the Tribune’s endorsement for it.

UNION EFFECT

Last week Dillard picked up the support of the third of the three biggest public employee unions in the state, when AFSCME Council 31 – which represents state government employees – joined the Illinois Education Association and Illinois Federation of Teachers in backing Dillard.

Dillard has sought to differentiate himself from the vehemently anti-union Rauner, and his campaign has touted the union endorsements as proof he’s more electable in November.

But longtime Statehouse reporter Doug Finke, who pens The State Journal-Register’s “Statehouse Insider” column writes that this is a very complicated issue politically.

Everyone knows that turnout in primary elections is sparse. Those most likely to vote are the committed party faithful. Among Republicans, that often means more conservative members of the party, which explains why you often see GOP candidates tacking to the right in the run-up to a primary.

You have to figure that the more conservative wing of the Republican Party will be more receptive to Rauner’s position that public employee unions, or at least their leaders, have been bad for the state and are the cause of many of the state’s problems. So if those are the people more likely to vote in a primary election, it may not do Dillard all that much good to pick up endorsements from public employee unions.

TOO CLOSE?

Even though polls of late showed Rauner with commanding leads among likely Republican voters, political columnist Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business cautions that this race still has many moving parts, and Dillard recently has gained momentum.

A variety of public and private polls and the consensus of consultants on both sides of the aisle all strongly suggest that Chicago investment mogul Bruce Rauner has a solid, even big lead of up to 20 percentage points over his nearest rival. But Mr. Rauner appears to have topped out somewhere in the 30s, and an increasing number of indicators suggest that state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale has begun to consolidate anti-Rauner forces.

That leaves the final outcome uncertain. In the end, who wins may be determined by whether large numbers of Democrats and independents cross party lines to pull GOP ballots in the March 18 primary. And whether Mr. Rauner dares to “go nuclear” on Mr. Dillard with a strong negative media attack. And, ironically, whether Republican primary voters dislike President Barack Obama more than Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In other words, don’t let polls convince you that the results already are in and there’s no need for you to go to the polls on March 18.

What do the Republican candidates for governor have planned if they get elected? Find out in our candidate questionnaire.  

Gov. Pat Quinn answered most of our questions in his questionnaire. He left the biggest one blank.

Among the poll results referred to in this piece are these findings from a We Ask America survey last week.

We look at the attack ads against all four GOP gubernatorial candidates in this edition of “Spin Cycle.”

Follow the race for governor in cartoon form with this gallery of election cartoons from Chicago Tribune cartoonist Scott Stantis.