In their third and final debate Wednesday, Senate candidates Alexi Giannoulias and Mark Kirk attempted to solidify their final campaign positions, with Kirk trying to lay claim to centrist policies and Giannoulias making a confusing promise to "go positive" while assailing his opponent's integrity.
The debate was broadcast live on WTTW at the City Club of Chicago. At the beginning, host Phil Ponce asked both candidates to say something nice about the other, which they did. But then the quibbling began in earnest, with Giannoulias put on the defensive about his family bank's loans to convicted felons.
Kirk displayed a list of highlighted names of felons with whom Broadway Bank did business, then repeated Giannoulias' claim from an earlier debate that "he didn't know the extent of the criminal activity of the people he was lending money to."
Giannoulias said he found the attacks offensive -- in fact, he would respond throughout the night to attacks by saying he was "offended" or that his "feelings were hurt." That didn't stop him from countering Kirk's accusations by assailing suspicious contributions to Kirk's campaigns.
"You know what, I brought my list," Giannoulias said, and then listed businessmen convicted of public corruption charges who made political donations to Kirk throughout his five-term political career. Kirk said he returned the money "almost a decade ago" and implied receiving campaign contributions from criminals wasn't as bad as making loans to them.
Giannoulias and Kirk then turned to face each other: Kirk asked Giannoulias to be "respectful" and let him finish, and Giannoulias acceded to the request while chiding him with "but be truthful." That drew a small titter from the audience.
Kirk was put on the defensive regarding his military service. "I was careless," Kirk said, acknowledging he exaggerated his 21-year career in the Navy Reserve. "I am accountable, which is why I apologized to the people of Illinois."
The debate then descended into a lengthy and quibble-heavy discussion on the politics of the federal stimulus. Kirk, displaying a chart of the deficit as a percentage of GDP, extolled the virtues of bipartisanship and argued that the deficit shrunk when President Clinton worked with a Republican congress.
"This explosion of spending now, that is what a growing bi-partisan majority is worried about," Kirk said, making another grab for the center. Giannoulias countered that Kirk voted for every one of President George W. Bush's spending bills.
At one point, Ponce lost control of the discussion as Kirk and Giannoulias talked over each other, each slinging accusations of flip-flopping. Kirk asked Ponce "I don't know, do you want to moderate this?" That drew the biggest laugh of the night from the audience.
The candidates then quickly answered several brief questions. They disagreed on gay marriage (Kirk not in favor) and agreed on civil unions. Asked whether Justice Clarence Thomas should recuse himself in matters in which his wife was an advocate, Giannoulias said he hadn't followed that issue too much. Kirk said "reticence would be a good policy." Both candidates said they don't have personal facebook pages.
The debate then turned to gays in the military. Kirk repeated his position that he would support the Joint Chiefs of Staff's recommendation, and that the administration was "all cattywampus" on its position. Kirk also said he didn't know any "openly" gay military servicemen.
Ponce then asked Kirk about his claim before that Iraq War that he, Kirk, had "moral certitude" that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Kirk said he believed he had been lied to by the deputy director of intelligence.
The debate closed with a length discussion of Afghan and Israeli policy, with Giannoulias generally supporting Preident Obama's positions and Kirk arguing for support of the military's recommendations.
The debate ended with Giannoulias arguing that his lack of legislative record was less important than his interest in helping struggling families. Kirk countered that Congress needs a centrist, and noted several bills where he had fought for Illinois' families' interests.