Illinois Senate rivals Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias clashed over the economy and each other's credibility in their first debate Sunday, on NBC's Meet the Press.
Giannoulias opened a new front during the session, hosted by David Gregory, when he accused Kirk several times of telling "whoppers," focusing on Kirk's claim -- on Sunday, and during the campaign -- that he had "become very much of a fiscal hawk here."
"This is a fundamental public policy difference between myself and Congressman Kirk," Giannoulias said. "He says he's-- a fiscal hawk. Look -- the congressman has told some real whoppers during this campaign, but that may be the biggest one of all. He voted for every single one of the Bush budgets, which doubled our national debt. He voted to increase his own pay six times. He voted for the bridge to nowhere twice."
Kirk, for his part, again apologized for a series of embellishments
he made about his record as an officer in the Navy Reserves. The stories about his misstatements that surfaced over the summer marked the low point of his campaign for Kirk, who once seemed like a shoo-in against Giannoulias but who never fully recovered from the disclosures.
That's a reason Giannoulias, 34, the Illinois State Treasurer and Kirk, 51, a five-term congressman,have been deadlocked in polls
The Giannoulias and Kirk camps have been running negative television spots for weeks. If all you knew about the contest was from the ads, it would seem a race between a mob banker and a serial embellisher.
- Transcript of Alexi Giannoulias-Mark Kirk Debate on NBC's 'Meet the Press'
- Poll: Illinois Senate Race Turning on 'Who Do You Trust (Less)?'
The contest has drawn national attention because it is for the Senate seat once held by President Obama.
Kirk and Giannoulias debate again on Oct. 19 and Oct. 27, both times in Chicago.
At issue for Giannoulias on Sunday were loans the Giannoulias family owned Broadway Bank made when Giannoulias was an officer at the bank -- which failed in August. The issue has followed Giannoulias from his Democratic primary into the general election contest with Kirk.
"I didn't know the extent of their activities," Giannoulias said when asked about the loans to crime figures. Gregory asked again about what Giannoulias knew, and he said, "I didn't know the extent of their activities."
After the debate, Kirk, speaking to reporters on the Meet the Press set after the debate, said Giannoulias answer "lacks some credibility given how heavily these figures were covered in the (Chicago) Tribune and Sun-Times."
Giannoulias said after the debate that his remarks were "consistent with everything I've said over the past few years. ...the folks back in Illinois know that I have been very consistent."
I asked Giannoulias to explain what he meant when he used the word "extent" in his response to Gregory, and he said, "We knew there were rumblings of problems. These weren't loans that I was intimately involved in. These weren't relationships that I brought to the bank, nothing has changed."
Kirk, for his part, sought to further explain his misstatements about his Navy Reserve service -- including his claim that he received an award that was actually given to his unit.
"I made mistakes with regard to my military statements," he said. "I was careless and I learned a very painful and humbling lesson."
On policy matters, the two split sharply over the impact of Obama's economic stimulus program.
Kirk said, "First of all, we recognize that the stimulus has largely failed. A very small part of it even went to infrastructure development projects. It didn't answer the question, 'What happens when all the borrowed money runs out?' Secondly, this Congress has been very, very viciously anti-business. New taxes, new regulation. We need senators and Congressmen that will pass a pro-growth agenda."
Giannoulias said there were flaws in the stimulus program, but it helped avoid more job and economic loss.
"The bigger question is what would have happened?" Giannoulias asked. "It was not flawlessly done, but if you take a look at what would have happened, do we need to see soup lines down the street to figure out what would have happened. We avoided and all economists will tell you that millions of jobs were saved because of the Recovery Act and we avoid a second great depression, that is a reality."