The playing field has become surprisingly level in the race to fill the Illinois Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama. Questions about whether the Obama White House is fully backing Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias, the state treasurer, will be answered once and for all on Monday, when Vice President Joe Biden hits Chicago for an afternoon fundraiser for him.
Monday is a big day in the Illinois Senate contest. Besides Biden's visit, GOP Senate candidate Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) and Giannoulias will be making back-to-back appearances at a forum in downtown Chicago to discuss regional planning and environmental issues. While it's not a debate and the pair will not be on the same stage at the same time, the session sponsored by the Metropolitan Planning Council will be the first time the rivals have shared any kind of joint platform and it comes as the race is heating up.
Kirk, a commander in the Navy Reserves, lost his front-runner status after a series of disclosures that he had embellished his military career. His false claims include being shot at several times, that he was a Desert Storm veteran, that he commanded the Pentagon's "war room" and had been named Navy Intelligence Officer of the Year in 1999. There is also Kirk's past reference to being "deployed" to Afghanistan when he actually was taking part in annual reservist training in 2008 and 2009, in Kandahar, each time for two weeks of duty over the Christmas and New Year holidays.
Elected to the House in 2000, Kirk is coming under close scrutiny for the first time in his career -- from the Giannoulias campaign, Web-based researchers and newspapers. Kirk went hat in hand to the editorial boards of the Chicago Sun-Times and The Chicago Tribune to apologize earlier this month after the first story surfaced about his intelligence award claim in The Washington Post. About that, Kirk told the Sun-Times, "I simply misremembered it wrong."
In past days, The New York Times in two stories raised questions about whether Kirk stretched the truth when he talked about being a nursery school teacher in Ithaca, N.Y., and teaching in England, where he traveled to study at the London School of Economics. He commented about being a teacher on the House floor in 2006 and in a speech this spring before the Illinois Education Association.
Giannoulias had his own low point in the campaign in April when he was dogged by stories from his past.
He was being pummeled by Kirk over his association with Broadway Bank -- controlled by his family and where Giannoulias was a loan officer before becoming state treasurer. Kirk had been hitting Giannoulias as a "mob banker" because of questionable loans the bank had made.
Broadway Bank was days away from failing when I ran into Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) at the Washington Press Club Foundation annual congressional dinner on April 21. Menendez, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, the Senate political operation, was optimistic about Giannoulias at a time when the odds seemed to be increasing against him. The Obama White House was keeping its distance, which put a tremendous damper on Giannoulias fundraising. The Obama team had reservations about Giannoulias from the beginning, and tried and failed to recruit Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to enter the race.
The criminal corruption trial of ousted Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was then looming (it is ongoing now) and played to Kirk's attempt to focus attention on ethics issues. But while the Democratic brand is taking a beating while the Blagojevich trial goes on, the impact of the trial on the Giannoulias campaign so far has been minimal.
Giannoulias, 34, also had to contend with the fact that as a treasurer in his first term, he had a serious experience gap and no military record compared to Kirk, 50, who received his Navy commission on June 1, 1989.
What does Giannoulias have going for him? I asked Menendez in April.
"Time," Menendez said.
Illinois had the earliest primary in the nation (Feb. 2), giving the Giannoulias and Kirk contest a much longer life span than other general election contests across the nation. Menendez had nothing particular in mind when we spoke, just the insight that with time, political fortunes change.
Kirk's self-inflicted wounds have, for now, altered the dynamics of the race.
Giannoulias and Kirk are in a statistical tie, according to a Public Policy Polling survey conducted June 12-13, with a 4.2 point margin of error. The automated telephone survey had Giannoulias at 31 percent to 30 percent for Kirk with 14 percent for Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones and 24 percent undecided.
In early April, PPP had Kirk in the lead with 37 percent to 33 percent for Giannoulias and 30 percent undecided. A Rasmussen Reports poll earlier this month had the race at a toss-up: Kirk 42 percent to Giannoulias at 39 percent.
The gift of time also gave the White House a chance to assess how damaged Giannoulias was by the Broadway Bank failure and how Kirk and his team were responding to the crisis swirling about his record, going to the heart of his credibility. Earlier this month, the Kirk campaign -- with no evidence -- accused the Obama administration of leaking information about Kirk's military record.
"Obviously Congressman Kirk has some problems that are of his creation and he can't download them on us," White House senior adviser David Axelrod told the Sun-Times. "I assure you that everyone here has plenty to do. No one is trafficking in revelatory records about him."
In time, the White House decided to throw some assets Giannoulias' way.
Besides Biden, the Obama White House last week sent in Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who did three fundraisers for Giannoulias. Deputy White House Chief of Staff Jim Messina headlined a fundraiser for him on Saturday and former Obama campaign manager David Plouffe has done some direct-mail appeals for Giannoulias and is the draw at a June 30 event, the last day of the second quarter of fundraising.
When it comes to campaign cash, Kirk has a commanding lead. As of March 31, he has raised $6,639,710 and had $3,703,634 cash-on-hand. Giannoulias collected $4,783,438 and had $1,221,628 cash-on-hand.
Giannoulias, taking a cue from Obama's 2008 presidential campaign, is not taking any money from federal lobbyists or donors under the age of 18.
According to www.opensecrets.org, 15 percent of Kirk's political money comes from political action committees, compared to 4 percent for Giannoulias. Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York is holding a fundraiser for Kirk next month in Manhattan.
As the campaign intensifies, the two candidates have also engaged in what has become a hallmark of modern campaigns -- sending trackers to each others' events or providing leads to news organizations about potentially damaging information on their opponents.
Giannoulias traveled to Washington last week for a fundraiser on the roof of an apartment building and the hosts of the event noticed a "tracker." Trackers are campaign staffers who are dispatched to events the rival camp holds in order to make a record of what happened, in case any of it is useful in attacking an opponent. (One of the most famous examples occurred in the 2006 Virginia Senate campaign when Republican George Allen singled out a volunteer from his opponent's campaign who was of Indian-descent and referred to him as "Macaca.") Use of trackers is pretty common and the Giannoulias and Kirk teams -- and their allies -- are open about having them.
The National Republican Senatorial Campaign sent a tracker to the Giannoulias fundraiser, only to be manhandled a bit when asked to leave. Of course, the video was posted and the NRSC used it as an occasion to zing Giannoulias.
"While filming an event for Alexi Giannoulias, the videographer was physically accosted by three men from the event, who appear to have been Giannoulias campaign staff members," the NSRC said. The men were not staffers, a Giannoulias spokesman said.
For its part, the Giannoulias campaign, which helped to push the stories out to the press about Kirk's record -- The Washington Post and The New York Times said so in their articles -- but has yet to follow up in any paid advertising, taking advantage of the free media negative attention being showered on Kirk. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow has so far devoted at least two segments to Kirk bashing, which may prove useful to Giannoulias in rallying the Democratic base and in fundraising.
But if time has helped Giannoulias, it may also play to Kirk's favor.
Kirk's "publicized record was somewhat embellished, but the fact is he served with honor and distinction and his record of solid service stands in stark contrast to his opponent, who has never served his county," said Illinois-born Fred Malek, a GOP activist and Kirk supporter based in Washington who keeps an eye on his home state politics.
Asked for an assessment of the extent of damage to Kirk from the controversy, campaign spokesman Kirsten Kukowski said: "Mark Kirk is a thoughtful, independent leader with a proven record of cutting wasteful spending, fighting for lower taxes and working to create jobs. Alexi Giannoulias is a 34-year-old failed banker who made risky lending decisions, loaned money to organized crime leaders, wiped out $70 million in family college savings and now wants to raise taxes. Illinois voters have a clear choice this November and our campaign will present the differences between the candidates with great clarity."
Giannoulias is still vulnerable on the bank failure story, with his campaign hoping that voters will give him the benefit of the doubt because the nation's economic meltdown caused a number of banks to fail.
Still out there: Giannoulias has yet to file his required financial disclosure required of all Senate candidates or, as promised, disclose his latest tax return. Kirk has been putting the pressure on Giannoulias about that, with Giannoulias' campaign saying he needed another extension to get all his information together related to the family-owned bank.
Of interest, of course, is what the Obama factor may be in Illinois. Giannoulias, an Obama basketball buddy, was elected treasurer with Obama's help, besting in the 2004 Illinois Democratic primary the candidate backed by the state Democratic party chief. The June PPP Illinois poll asked, "Are you more or less likely to vote for a candidate endorsed but President Obama or does it not make a difference either way?" Only 26 percent said Obama's endorsement made a vote for the candidate more likely and 40 percent said less likely.
Pete Giangreco, a Giannoulias consultant, said that in the wake of the Kirk military record stories, the "race is fundamentally, completely different, a sea change, and none of this is to the good of Kirk."
FOOTNOTE: If the race stays close, other candidates may matter. Just as Giannoulias will have to watch his left flank because a Green Party candidate is on the ballot, Kirk may face problems from the right because of the Tea Party movement. Monday is the deadline in Illinois to file nominating papers for candidates running as independents or from new political parties. Political unknown Mike Niecestro is trying to get on the ballot as an independent and has been looking to Tea Party activists for support. Another challenge to Kirk from the right is coming from another little known figure, Randy Stufflebean, trying to get on the ballot on the Constitution Party line. The Illinois Libertarian Party is also trying to get on the November ballot.
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