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

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 31, 2010; A03

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.)

Cheryle Jackson, head of the Urban League here and running third in the field, called on Giannoulias to quit the race with the news that Broadway Bank must raise $50 million in capital.

In an interview, Giannoulias played down the impact the bank's problems could have on his campaign, noting that "these are challenging times for community banks, and my family is not immune." But the news lands on an electorate highly suspicious of banks, and in a state yet to recover from former Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich's indictment on charges he tried to sell this very Senate seat to political contributors after Obama was elected president. He finally appointed Roland Burris, who will not run for the seat.

Giannoulias said he hasn't worked at the bank in four years. Still, both Kirk and Democratic rivals have pointed out that large loans were made to people with questionable reputations on his watch, including convicted felon Tony Rezko.

The son of Greek immigrants and college basketball star, Giannoulias is telegenic and able to raise money, and he has assiduously worked the party establishment. But he was not the White House's first choice: Obama aides openly courted state Attorney General Lisa Madigan to run, even bringing her to Washington to meet with Obama.

Kirk entered the race after it was clear Madigan would not.

Republicans are relishing that the trial of the ever-colorful Blagojevich is expected to start in June and could create an unwelcome circus for Democrats.

Kirk, a social moderate who supports abortion rights and is fiscally conservative, has shown resilience in tough races. Democrats pumped millions of dollars into his district, trying to defeat him in the last two election cycles. Even with Obama on the ballot in 2008 and pulling 61 percent in Kirk's districts, Kirk still won convincingly.

"What's past is prologue for me," Kirk said. ". . . I'm braced for what I lived through last year."

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