MCLEANSBORO, Ill. | Dressed down in a fleece vest and khakis, Bruce Rauner works potential voters at PJ's Cafe, greeting the locals as a waitress brings around the usual plates of eggs, hash browns and toast.
Rauner, a billionaire businessman hoping to emerge from March's Republican primary as the GOP's choice for governor, is a long way from the wealthy north shore of Chicago, where he and wife Diana live in a $3.3 million mansion. Here in downstate Illinois, the unemployment rate hovers around 20 percent in many counties.
Rauner's goal is to persuade voters that he is like them, similar to the message in the TV ads he has spent millions of dollars airing in recent weeks. And that means explaining his luxury campaign charter bus with the leather couches, even as he talks about his roots milking cows with his Scandinavian grandfather, hunting and riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
"This bus is the fanciest thing I've ever driven around on," he said. "It's like a jet on four wheels."
While he was greeted warmly, Rauner's challenge in crafting an "average Joe" image came into stark relief this week during his swing through 30 of the state's southernmost communities. Rauner's tour, dubbed the "Shake Up Express" by the campaign, brought him to restaurants, farm bureaus and local Republican organizations, but headlines about his shifting stance on the minimum wage took the focus off his efforts downstate.
Drawn into a thorny issue that could feature prominently in the 2014 campaign, Rauner insisted that he is in favor of hiking the minimum wage under the right conditions — but his response only came after tapes surfaced on which he is heard calling for the minimum wage to be cut and saying he was "adamantly, adamantly" against raising it.
The new stance puts Rauner at odds with the other three GOP primary contenders, all of whom oppose a minimum wage hike proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn, the Democratic incumbent. At the risk of being seen as waffling, experts say, Rauner might be using the issue to combat an image of him as a rich, out-of-touch guy from the Chicago area.
"It's an image issue, really," said Chris Mooney, a political scientist at the University of Illinois at Springfield. "If Rauner gets past the primary, he's going to have to suffer that (rich guy) attack from Quinn. This gives him more fodder and makes the image more credible."
Rauner's three primary opponents — State Sen. Bill Brady, of Bloomington, State Sen. Kirk Dillard, of Hinsdale, and state Treasurer Dan Rutherford, of Chenoa — all have name recognition from previous campaigns and decades of public service, and are making their own swings through the remote corners of the state.
Farther north, Rauner has used his hefty $7 million war chest for an early TV ad blitz targeting troubles in Springfield, noting that he has never held public office and portraying the other candidates as part of the problem. But in deep southern Illinois — a rock-ribbed conservative area that reliably turns out 15 percent of the GOP primary vote, personal outreach in small communities like this could make a difference, especially if the primary is as close as Brady's 193-vote win over Dillard in 2010.
Rauner's tour bus ambled down icy roads, past cornfields and shuttered state prisons, from Vienna to Mount Vernon, McLeansboro, Albion and Carmi. They were stops where many residents he met had few preconceived notions about his candidacy or wealth.
Clarence Bennett, of Wayne City, said he was so struck by "this newcomer" and his anti-corruption message that he was already leaning toward voting for him. "The others, they've had their chance," he said.
Rauner, gesticulating with his large hands that once played Ivy League football at Dartmouth, tells a group sitting on folding chairs in the basement of a farm bureau building in Albion that he doesn't need the job or want a political career.
"The reason I'm here is (that) I was born and raised here — and we're going down the drain," he says.
He promised dramatic change in Springfield if elected, and to "work as governor for every voter." He vowed to hold himself to a two-term limit and improve businesses and schools throughout the state. He also pledged to return during the campaign, even while acknowledging that the bulk of the GOP vote will come from farther north.
"You guys are just as important as anyone else," he said.
Steve Smith, a crisis center chaplain who met Rauner at the Edwards County Farm Bureau, noted that the candidate "wasn't dressed up" and was wearing "a regular shirt." But afterward, he went home and did some research.
"I knew he was a successful businessman, but not at that caliber," Smith said, surprised to learn that Rauner, a venture capitalist, earned $53 million last year and has ownership stakes in three professional sports teams. "Honestly, he didn't come across that way to me in any way, shape or form."
Smith also read about Rauner trying to control fallout from his changing position on the minimum wage.
"He is going to make some mistakes, you bet he is," Smith said. "But I like that he hasn't been in office."
Others said such mistakes could be costly, particularly in communities where a candidate's word carries significant weight.
"From where I'm from, they're pretty conservative people. And they want those types of people representing them," said Ken Wiggs, the GOP chairman for Johnson County. "We don't just want somebody portraying themselves to be that way."