In the most compelling Illinois race this cycle, Mark and Alexi Giannoulias look like they'll battle it out for President Obama's old senate seat.
Both of Illinois' candidates for the United States Senate job lost their debate last night.
Throughout the debate, Giannoulias was smoother, calmer and taller than Kirk, a juxtaposition that's tough to ignore.
Kirk had a deeper understanding of federal government, a consequence of his 10 years in Congress, but came off like Mr. Smarty Pants.
Giannoulias appeared to be a man of deeper convictions, while Kirk often got lost in the complexities of issues, and ended up sounding as though he was trying to take both sides of an issue. He sometimes sounded like a congressman who can’t explain to the folks back home why they do things the way they do in Washington.
If there was a winner, last night, it was Giannoulias, but only because his views are closer to the majority of Illinoisans. This Blue State has only elected one Republican senator in the last 32 years.
If Giannoulias wins the election, he’ll win because of that, not because he’s a great debater.
The Democrat scored the biggest point of the night when ABC7 newsman Charles Thomas asked Kirk about his those “voter integrity squads” he’s assembling to ensure there’s no jiggering of the vote on the South Side, the West Side, Rockford or Metro East.
Kirk denied the squads are aimed at suppressing the black vote, but Giannoulias pressed the issue hard. .
"Metro East is 84 percent non African-American," Kirk said in denying the claim. "It’s a statewide effort to make sure we have a free and fair election."
"Congressman Kirk got caught on tape," Giannoulias said. "The same goons and thugs that were responsible for voter intimidation in Florida. You’re trying to suppress the African-American vote."
"There is corruption in the state of Illinois," Kirk said weakly. "You of all people should know."
The Florida reference was part of Giannoulias’s attempt to tie Kirk to Rove, whose Crossroads America cut an ad for Kirk. At least three times, Giannoulias referred to "Rove and Kirk."
But Kirk nailed Giannoulias during an argument over the Supreme Court’s recent Citizens United ruling, which banned limits on corporate funding of elections. Giannoulias said he would vote for a constitutional amendment to overturn the ruling, and boasted that he refused to take donations from corporate PACs.
"He takes tens of thousands from state lobbyists, some of whom have business before his office," Kirk said. "No corporate PACs, but you take tons of money from union PACs."
When the debate turned to issues, rather than character -- which wasn't often -- Giannoulias displayed a kind of youthful naivety that belies his inexperience. Kirk on the other hand displayed a pedantic mastery of the details that bordered on smarmy.
Both men were asked about the DREAM Act, which would give illegal immigrants a path to citizenship if they attended college or joined the military. Their answer's informed their experience. “I’m in favor of the DREAM Act,” Giannoulias said. “I’m in favor of comprehensive immigration reform.”
Republican Mark Kirk was more, shall we say, nuanced.
“First, we have to restore the trust in the American people to secure our border,” Kirk said, citing Mexico’s chaotic drug war. “Until we restore that trust, I don’t think we can move forward.”
Giannoulias endorsed “full marriage equality,” while Kirk said, “I oppose gay marriage and I support civil unions, but I don’t think we should have a federal takeover of federal marriage laws.”
Overall, the debate does not equal a slam dunk for either the smooth-talking, but shallow Giannoulias nor short and brainy, oft-defensive Kirk.