CHICAGO -- Illinois GOP Senate candidate Rep. Mark Kirk, after apologizing Tuesday to a packed room of supporters for embellishing his record as a Navy reserve officer, on Wednesday launched an ad blitz aimed at Democratic rival Alexi Giannoulias.
"Moving forward . . . I expect this is going to be one of the most dramatic and rock-and-rollin' races for the Senate this state has seen in some time," Kirk said as his campaign looked to regain its footing after Kirk's self-inflicted wounds.
And as the second-quarter fund-raising deadline loomed at midnight Wednesday, Giannoulias, the state treasurer, scrambled for campaign cash at a fund-raiser here headlined by David Plouffe, who lived in Chicago for two years while he managed the Obama presidential campaign. The fund-raiser is aimed at young professionals.
Kirk's campaign bought time in the Chicago market on Wednesday for two new TV spots. One returns to two familiar Kirk lines of attacks against Giannoulias: his tenure at a failed, family-owned bank that Kirk says made loans to mobsters, and his oversight as state treasurer of the Illinois "Bright Star" college savings fund that lost $73 million.
In the other ad, Kirk portrays himself as more of an environmentalist than Giannoulias, tying in BP, which is, to say the least, very unpopular in the United States because of the Gulf oil spill. Kirk fought BP's plan to discharge wastewater into Lake Michigan.
A few hours later, Giannoulias put out its own video in reply, slamming Kirk over his military embellishments, which have included claiming he was named Navy Intelligence Officer of the Year when he wasn't. "This ad uses Kirk's own laughably dishonest words, spliced amid media accounts of his lies, to dramatize the unraveling of Kirk's bizarre self-mythology, demonstrating a clear pattern," Giannoulias spokesman Matt McGrath said.
"Now, in a desperate attempt to change the subject, Congressman Kirk is on the attack."
Kirk, after basically hiding out for the month since the first of a series of stories broke May 29 about his misstatements about his military and teaching careers, finally came out of his self-imposed bunker, to the relief of some in the Illinois GOP establishment. Several GOP activists I talked to were worried not so much about the series of embellishments, but by the inability of the campaign to deal with the crisis and move on.
To use what might be an over-worked phase of late, the Kirk campaign is pressing the restart button this week. On Tuesday, Kirk presented himself as a changed man, humble and chagrined at a carefully orchestrated session that was part press conference with reporters, part pep rally with backers.
The event was held at a hotel in north suburban Northbrook, not far from his Senate campaign headquarters and in the Tenth Congressional District that he represents.
Kirk started by reading a 10-minute speech with the confession coming near the end: "Now, I've made mistakes when characterizing certain aspects of my accomplishments and experiences. I apologize for my mistakes and I pledge to correct any errors. I am not perfect, and I was careless. I will do better and make sure this never happens again," Kirk said.
This was Kirk's second apology over the mess he created, and the most expansive. On June 3, Kirk trekked to the editorial boards of the Chicago Sun-Times and Tribune and said he was sorry, but most of the focus then was just on one incident -- claiming for years he won the Navy Intelligence award. As days passed, more problems for Kirk developed -- ten in all, according to most counts -- having to do with unfounded claims of being in combat, serving in Iraq, running the Pentagon "War Room" and the revelation that he was counseled twice by the Pentagon not to engage in politics while on reserve duty.
One of the "politics on duty" incidents involved a Kirk staffer twittering while Kirk was on a reserve weekend. The second warning came in 2008, after the arrest of then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on Dec. 8. Kirk, preparing to leave for two weeks in Afghanistan on Dec. 13, did a number of interviews following the arrest. The Navy contacted Kirk to remind him of the no- politics-while-on-duty rule.
Tuesday, after reading the speech, Kirk spent 35 minutes taking questions from reporters, deciding to stay and answer everything asked. At parts of the Q and A with reporters, the invited audience -- which included some veterans -- hooted, booed or cheered as reporters kept pressing Kirk about his misclaims.
"I think the scrutiny is absolutely appropriate," Kirk said. "Many people, I should say, in the Navy, many sailors have made mistakes and I am one of them. But we live up to duty, honor, country, which means that if you make a mistake, own it, fix it, apologize, make sure it doesn't happen again."
Kirk was asked what he was thinking when he said he won the "Navy Intelligence Officer of the Year" award when he did not. (At one time his unit did win a less prestigious award from an outside association.)
"Most importantly, I wasn't thinking . . . This was a carelessness that did not reflect well on me," he said.
Kirk also promised a more open campaign. Since he started running for the Senate, Kirk has refused to release schedules of his routine government- and campaign-related appearances to discourage coverage and rivals' use of "trackers" to record his campaign events.
"We are going to be making myself much more available going forward," Kirk said. Later, he pledged, "Because this is a high office, I am going to be much more forthcoming about the future schedule of all my public events, so you will be seeing a lot more of our schedule."
Kirk, who has been in the Navy reserves for 21 years and is a commander, said he is putting all reserve duty on hiatus until after the November election.
In order to keep out Democratic trackers, the Kirk campaign asked reporters to register in advance, and everyone was checked in. Outside the hotel, before the Kirk session started, the Giannoulias campaign staged its own press event, which was tape recorded by a staffer from the Illinois GOP party.
The Giannoulias campaign had a press conference with Marquell Smith, a former Marine who said he was gay -- to keep pounding at Kirk's military record. Smith said he was forced out of the military for being gay and it was unfair that Kirk faced no sanctions. Later, the Giannoulias camp issued a statement saying the Kirk apology was "hollow."
I asked Pat Brady, the chairman of the Illinois Republican Party, how damaged Kirk was.
"He's still up in the polls. I think he will lead in the fund-raising numbers we are going to see at the end of the quarter. Organizationally, structurally, statewide, I think he is ahead of Alexi," Brady said.
"I think Mark realizes the significance of this," Brady told me. "Today is the day to start moving forward and start dealing with the real issues that people care about."