Rep. Mark Kirk and State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias' character issues overshadowed policy discussion during Tuesday night's debate, as both candidates stuck to their talking points and sniped aggressively at each other's well-publicized flaws.
Both men tried to paint the other as responsible for the last decade's failed policies, with Kirk attempting to associate Giannoulias with corruption, and Giannoulias attempting to link Kirk to the policies of George W. Bush and Karl Rove.
Giannoulias, who spoke first, set the tone, saying Kirk was an architect of failed Washington parties and vowed to always tell the truth -- a point he reiterated several times during the debate.
In response Kirk, a five-term North Shore congressman, attempted to set the stage for an economic policy debate, arguing that his centrism and independence and his knowledge of economic philosophy would bring "thoughtful, independent leadership" to Illinois.
But both candidates quickly fell into personal attack mode after panelist Andy Shaw's first question, which focused on the candidate's negative campaign ads and pointed out a "notable lack of high-level discourse" on important issues.
Kirk agreed that the campaign had been about "resumé and background," but argued that voters will vote based on economic philosophy. "I am the only candidate in this race who will vote to spend less, borrow less, tax less," he said.
"[That's] a tremendous irony, because there's no one in this race who's taxed more, borrowed more, and spent more," Giannoulias said. "You voted for every one of the George Bush budgets that had been part of the overspending, overtaxing, over-borrowing ethos of Washington, D.C."
Giannoulias retorted that he had tried to talk about issues, but said "Congressman Kirk and Karl Rove with their millions of dollars have a different agenda," referring to Kirk's much larger war chest of campaign funds.
At that, the moderators turned the conversation directly toward the character issue. Kirk said the controversy over his military record has been "a painful process" and reiterated that he had apologized and released his service records.
"The difference between me and my opponent is he made a number of mistakes," Kirk said. "When we saw the Broadway Bank collapse, you took no responsibility whatsoever. When we saw the Bright Start program lose $70 million in college savings, that wasn't your fault either...I saw my mistakes and I corrected them. Meanwhile my opponent? Nothing is really his fault."
But Giannoulias harped on the issue, saying that the service records didn't actually address any of Kirk's alleged "misrememberings."
"Look I've seen the congressman's fitness reports, and they are impressive," Giannoulias said. "But nowhere in those reports does it answer any of the questions that have plagued him throughout his campaign...nowhere in there does it say he served in Iraq, nowhere in there does it say he was shot at by Dutch peacekeepers, nowhere in there does it say he was shot at at all."
The two then began talking over the moderator, with Giannoulias repeatedly asking "were you shot at? Answer the question." Kirk did not answer directly but said he'd put his life on the line, then countered "You were in the rear with the gear."
The candidates then discussed a few issues, beginning with the stimulus.
Kirk, who opposed the plan, said the federal stimulus focused too much on shovel-ready projects at the expense of long-term planning. Giannoulias praised the plan, saying it prevented a second Great Depression.
The candidates also disagreed on the issue of immigration. Giannoulias said he supports the Dream Act as part of comprehensive reform, where Kirk says border security is the primary concern, and consideration of the Dream Act should follow.
The candidates returned to heated exchanges once the subject of voter integrity squads was raised. Kirk said he was not targeting minority black communities. Giannoulias retorted that Kirk was focusing on South and West side neighborhoods that have never had voter fraud problems, thus insinuating that Kirk was targeting African-American voters who are traditionally more likely to vote Democratic.
The two candidates also differed on Don't Ask Don't Tell. Giannoulias said he favors repealing the policy. Kirk said he has voted to continue the policy, then admitted he was confused as to the current administration's present stance. Bottom line, Kirk said, is that lawmakers should get input from military leaders.
In closing statements, Giannoulias made an emotional appeal to the jobless. Kirk countered, saying his fiscally conservative philosophy would prevent another round of tax increases.