Republicans hope for another Senate victory, this time in Obama's Illinois

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010

CHICAGO -- Not a good week for the Democrats here trying to hang on to President Obama's old Senate seat.

The party's leading contender -- state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias -- has spent these last precious days before Tuesday's primary scrambling to explain why regulators have targeted his struggling family bank for greater oversight. Giannoulias, once a senior lending officer at Broadway Bank, is being pressed relentlessly by his Democratic rivals and the media about his role in the bank's woes.

Republicans promise that it is not a topic that will go away.

The Senate race in the president's home state will be among the most symbolically important and expensive races in the country this year. After Republican Scott Brown's victory in Massachusetts this month, the GOP sees a clear path to victory in this Democratic state -- and his name is Mark Kirk.

Kirk, 50, a moderate five-term Republican House member, appears to be the man of the moment. As the likely GOP nominee to emerge Tuesday, Kirk is seen as a formidable, well-funded candidate, a Navy Reserve officer who has done two tours in Afghanistan and who can withstand the weight of a White House set to defeat him.

Kathleen Strand, an Illinois consultant to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said Democrats will portray Kirk as a Washington "insider" and a "flip-flopper" who veered to the right to satisfy conservatives to win the primary.

This is the first primary in a series of states where moderate Republicans are being pushed to the right by the conservative "tea party" movement, raising GOP concerns that winning primary candidates will find it difficult to return to the middle for the general election.

Democrats have criticized Kirk for soliciting support from Sarah Palin and for switching his position on cap-and-trade -- a measure intended to reduce carbon emissions by taxing certain forms of energy use. He was one of a handful of Republicans who voted for the House bill. But after tea-party activists protested at his office, he came out against it.

Kirk said in an interview that he shifted his position after he traveled the state and heard from businesses that the measure would "hammer them and cost jobs."

Paul Green, director of policy studies at Roosevelt University here, said: "Kirk will have plenty of time to modify his positions in the general. He is going to be very tough to beat if the current trends continue. None of the other candidates' résumés match up to his."

Although Giannoulias is leading the fractured Democratic field with about a third of the vote, according to independent surveys, national Democrats have privately expressed concern about his relative inexperience and the fact that he hasn't developed a commanding lead over his rivals. "Why hasn't he stepped up and put this away by now?" asked one congressional aide from the state.

Some Democrats think Giannoulias, 32, may not even make it out of the primary. Former city inspector general David Hoffman, 42, has been moving up in the polls over the past few weeks, while Giannoulias's numbers have stayed about the same, suggesting undecided voters may be moving to Hoffman in these final days. A known anti-corruption former prosecutor, Hoffman has been endorsed by most state newspapers -- the Chicago Tribune called him "an incorruptible man who speaks truth to power" -- and he has seen contributions soar this week. ("We just got $2,400 from Tom Daschle!" a breathless aide shouted, bursting into a room where Hoffman was being interviewed.)

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