After a week of bickering over whether Republican Gov. James R. Thompson called his Democratic challenger, Adlai E. Stevenson III, a "wimp," the two candidates started their second debate today on a higher plane.
By debate's end, however, Stevenson was charging that his opponent had dragged the campaign back "in the gutter" and was continuing to wage "a personal, bitter, vicious and very deceptive campaign." Thompson hauled out Stevenson's record to paint him as a "big spender" in the past.
Both nominees had been urged by their advisers to be positive after their first debate in Peoria during which each candidate repeatedly accused the other of lying.
The candidates withheld personal comments about each other through most of the second exchange today, but Thompson finally upset Stevenson with his closing two minutes.
Stevenson's anger came out in a postmortem news conference that dealt with the governor's surprise attack.
Thompson pulled out his opponent's record as a state legislator 17 years ago to try to show him as a big spender.
"You have said you want to hold the line on taxes," Thompson noted about a Stevenson pledge. "That's your promise but your record is different."
Referring to Stevenson's voting record in 1965 in the Illinois House, Thompson said, "You voted for every single tax increase that came along -- 33 times as a matter of fact."
In 10 years in the U.S. Senate, Thompson said, Stevenson spent "trillions of dollars" while deficits built up. "Your record demonstrates, sir, that when you were in a position to spend, you spent for a decade."
Both candidates have said they hope to hold the line on tax increases.
Obviously caught off guard, Stevenson denounced the accusation as "Madison Avenue at its worst" during a meeting with reporters after the debate. "This sounds like Bailey, Deardourff," he went on, referring to the governor's advertising consultants.
Stevenson dismissed the accusation as "ancient history" but didn't deny the backup information in a memo supplied by Thompson aides.
"You can use statistics to prove anything. For example, they didn't call all the votes to save money I made," Stevenson said.
For the most part, the candidates heeded their advisers, although Thompson scolded his Democratic opponent for lacking specifics in the "Stevenson strategy" for helping Illinois "win the second industrial revolution."
Both candidates seemed to be trying to put behind them a week of personal accusations which started Monday when Stevenson introduced the "wimp" issue. In a newspaper interview, Stevenson complained that his opponent had mistakenly implied he was "some kind of wimp."
At a news conference the next day, Thompson denied the accusation in a statement repeating the word "wimp" several times. "I have never called Adlai Stevenson a wimp," he said. "I don't think he's a wimp."
Thompson however accused his opponent of "getting paranoid" and Stevenson later accused Thompson's campaign of using an anti-Semitic attack against him.
Chicago columnists and television commentators reflected on the "wimp" matter throughout the week, attracting a sellout crowd to the second debate. Recent public polls show the state race to be still close but give Thompson the advantage -- one poll early this week showed Thompson leading Stevenson by 8 percentage points after trailing by 2 points in the previous one -- just after his latest television commercial blitz.