CHICAGO -- Illinois Senate rivals Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk clashed over character in their debate here on Tuesday night, landing no knockout blows in a highly negative race that has been deadlocked for weeks.
The debate -- the second of three -- comes as both campaigns are focused on turning out their base vote as polls show some 15 percent of Illinois voters seem hopelessly undecided as to who should fill the seat once held by President Obama. Meanwhile, the Illinois airwaves are blanketed with ads suggesting the race is between a mob banker and a serial embellisher.
"This has been a tough and at times very negative campaign. But there is a lot at stake," Giannoulias said.
Giannoulias, the Illinois state treasurer, mentioned Karl Rove's name at least nine times during the debate, throwing Rove in a few more times in the post-debate interviews he gave reporters.
Rove, former President Bush's political guru, is linked to American Crossroads, a group bankrolling a blizzard of anti-Giannoulias ads in Illinois and ads against Democrats in other states. Rove has been in the cross-hairs of President Obama and other Democrats for weeks.
The Giannoulias campaign believes that voters, at least the Democratic-leaning persuadeables in Illinois, find Rove unpopular, and the use of his name is an effective shorthand for everything voters may not like about Washington.
The debate, sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Illinois and ABC and its local Chicago affiliate, was moderated by ABC's "Good Morning America" co-host George Stephanopoulos.
Kirk, a five-term member of Congress from a north suburban Chicago district, tried to pre-empt a Democratic and Giannoulias issue. He said the unknown names of donors to Rove's group -- and contributors to all organizations helping candidates -- should be disclosed.
Giannoulias pressed Kirk -- a Navy Reserve intelligence officer for 21 years whose campaign never recovered from revelations of embellishments he made to his service record -- about whether he was shot at in Iraq. Kirk has backtracked on that claim, but Giannoulias has been intent on squeezing more out of him.
Referring to their first debate, on NBC's "Meet the Press," where host David Gregory asked Kirk whether or not he was shot at, Giannoulias said, "The Congressman never answered the question. So, the question, Congressman, is: Why with this record, would you not tell the truth? Why would you make all this stuff up? Congressman, simple question: Were you shot at or not?"
Kirk, as he has done before, skirted a direct answer as he lobbed a comeback to Giannoulias. "The ultimate irony" he said, is that Giannoulias is "a man who spends most of his campaign for the Senate criticizing my military record and yet he never served a day in uniform himself."
Giannoulias demanded, "Were you shot at or not?"
"I have put my life on the line for the United States, as many of my fellow veterans have done. But your entire campaign is about a military record in which I served. I put it on the line. You were back in the rear -- with the gear," Kirk said.
In a sharp exchange, Kirk said he owned up to his mistakes, but that Giannoulias never took responsibility for his family-owned, failed Broadway Bank -- which made bad loans to mobsters -- or for losses in the Illinois college savings program, named Bright Star.
"I'm not perfect. I made mistakes. But I owned them and corrected them. And meanwhile, my opponent says nothing is really his fault," Kirk said.
Kirk finally said that he did not support the DREAM Act, championed by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). The Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act would, if enacted, let certain students in the country illegally remain here. It's an issue Kirk has been avoiding for months.
Asked his position on the measure, Kirk said, "I'm the Spanish-speaking candidate. Went to school in Mexico. Very much care about that country. President Calderon has been in a death struggle with drug cartels. And says that he doesn't have full control of four of the 32 states of Mexico. We've already seen that Phoenix has become one of the kidnap capitals of the Western Hemisphere. We don't want that kind of violence spreading across onto our side.
"Remembering, of course, our status in Illinois as being the state with the highest number of per capita gang members in the state. I think if we restore that trust, if we close down the border, if make sure that for the homeland security of the United States, we accomplish a fundamental mission of understanding who is coming into the country. We reward legal immigrants, who have played by the rules. Then we open up the space for the rest of the debate. But until you restore that trust, I don't think we can move forward," Kirk said.
Giannoulias, noting that Kirk had been asked twice to declare if his vote would be no, said, "This is what people are sick and tired of in Washington, D.C. You asked him a simple question. I asked him a simple question. He refused to tell his position on the DREAM Act. I've made my position clear. I am for a responsible path to citizenship. Absolutely we need to secure our borders. That needs to be the first thing we do. But just give 'em an answer, Congressman. They may not always agree with you. Just tell 'em the truth. Tell 'em where you stand so they can make their decision on Election Day. It's important."
During a post-debate session with reporters, Kirk said, "If the Act came up right now, I would vote no. First border control, then everything else."
Giannoulias made the point several times during the debate that you always know where he stands, whether you agree with him or not.
On spending cuts, Giannoulias did not, during the debate, name any program that should be eliminated. Kirk was for not funding purchase of new engines for F-35 fighter jets.
Kirk and Giannoulias differed clearly on two issues: Kirk opposes gay marriage and Giannoulias said he was for "marriage equality." Giannoulias is for the repeal of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, while Kirk stood by his vote to continue it.
In one exchange about the Supreme Court, Kirk recounted how he backed the nomination of Elena Kagan and opposed confirming Sonia Sotomayor -- President Obama's two Supreme Court picks. Giannoulias was asked -- and could not answer -- a request to name a single Republican appointee on the Supreme Court he would have voted for.
The third and final Illinois Senate debate is Oct. 27 in Chicago.