The competition between Shane Cultra and Jason Barickman goes back almost 18 months.
It started about a minute after Dan Rutherford was elected state treasurer in November 2010 and Rutherford's state Senate seat became available.
At one time, there were as many as seven candidates for the position, but when the Republican county chairmen met on Nov. 20, 2010, to select the new senator, only two candidates — Cultra and Barickman — earned any votes. On the second ballot, Cultra was declared the winner.
Barickman essentially got the second-place prize a little later, when he was appointed to Cultra's old seat in the House of Representatives.
But last June 2, soon after the Legislature had approved a new legislative district map, Barickman announced that he would run for Cultra's 53rd Senate district seat. Cultra announced his candidacy later.
Round two was on, but this time to the winner goes all the spoils. There will be no consolation prize for the second-place finisher in the March 20 primary election.
The loser will be out of the Legislature after next January.
So far, it's been a gentlemanly race with no mud-slinging, at least publicly.
"Rather than point out our differences," Barickman wrote in a candidate questionnaire to Bloomington radio station WJBC, "I have run a very positive campaign that talks about my vision for the state."
Cultra has stayed similarly positive.
"I don't think there's a lot of difference in terms of issues. But there's a huge difference in experience, there's no doubt about that," Cultra told The News-Gazette in January. "I have a record to prove where I say I am. I say I'm a fiscal and social conservative. You can look at the record. I'm not just whistling Dixie."
Both Cultra and Barickman support a concealed-carry gun law, requiring a photo identification in order to vote, repeal of last year's 67 percent income tax increase and more workers compensation system changes.
They both oppose broadening the state sales tax to include services, eliminating the office of regional superintendent of education and mandating school consolidation.
And neither could be considered a proponent of term limits.
In response to a News-Gazette questionnaire, Cultra said he is "open to the idea, but definitely favor term limits on leadership, maybe to 10 years."
At a recent forum, Barickman, who did not fill out the N-G questionnaire, said "we should keep an open mind regarding term limits with the idea of getting it done."
Both candidates say they would uphold conservative principles in their largely rural and overwhelmingly Republican district.
"I've tried to provide leadership in many ways in my life," Barickman said in his WJBC questionnaire, "and I believe I can fundamentally alter our state government by being an effective, conservative leader."
He also told The News-Gazette in January, "My intention since day one has never been to say (the election) is about Jason or Shane. It's about making sure that the people of the 53rd District are represented by someone who brings effective, conservative leadership to Springfield."
Said Cultra in his response to a Chicago Tribune survey: "Look at my voting record, often when there were only one or two no votes on legislation, I was the one.
"In terms of independence, I am about as independent as they come."
And in his WJBC survey, Cultra wrote that "experience and a true conservative voting record" set him apart from Barickman.
Based on their records, the biggest differences between Cultra and Barickman are on the issue of General Assembly scholarships and on the recent vote on tax breaks for major employers in the state.
Cultra has given out General Assembly scholarships, including one to the child of Republican Judge Stephen Pacey in Ford County. He now says he "will support legislation to abolish" the scholarships.
Barickman said he has not given out legislative scholarships and has spoken out against the program since his first day in office.
Regarding tax breaks for Sears and the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, Barickman explained his no vote to the Tribune: "Our state government should proceed with caution when using incentives, as they may become economically inefficient and/or create opportunities for abuse of the tax system.
"I opposed the CME/Sears package on this rationale, but am not opposed to all incentives."
Cultra justified his vote for the tax breaks by saying that the state must "do a better job of recruiting job creators and offering incentives to our current employers to encourage growth and expansion."
"A major boom in the Illinois economy, combined with hiring increases, will recoup the job losses from the tax incentives," Cultra said.
In the only publicly released poll of voters in the district, a survey taken in January for the Illinois Manufacturers Association gave Cultra a lead of 28 percent to 20 percent with 52 percent undecided.