By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; A03
CHICAGO -- One evening last week, presidential adviser David Axelrod spoke at a small fundraiser for 34-year-old Illinois State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a basketball buddy of Barack Obama's and the Democratic candidate for the president's old Senate seat.
Axelrod told the story of a long-ago phone call from the evening's hostess, Democratic donor Bettylu Saltzman, who said she'd just met young Obama and thought that he could be president someday. Axelrod turned and smiled at Giannoulias. Her blessing, the adviser said, was a "good omen."
Giannoulias will take any good omens he can get. He is an amiable but not quite formidable candidate who has struggled to inspire even some loyal Democrats. His principal professional experience before winning election as treasurer in 2006 with Obama's support was four years as a senior loan officer at his family's Broadway Bank -- seized in April by federal regulators when piles of loans went bad.
His Republican opponent is more experienced and better funded, but error-prone. Rep. Mark Kirk, 50, who assails Giannoulias daily on Chicago's airwaves, got into trouble recently for embellishing his military service and teaching experience. His troubles helped erase Kirk's early lead in the polls and the two are now running even.
The White House, anxious about the possibility of losing a Democratic seat, especially in the president's home state, is taking a special interest in the race. This is the seat that ousted governor Rod Blagojevich (D) allegedly tried to sell to the highest bidder after Obama left the Senate to become president. He later appointed a semi-retired politician, Roland Burris, who made little mark and did not seek election.
In recent weeks, the president and other senior administration officials have emerged as some of Giannoulias's most visible supporters. Axelrod, Vice President Biden and strategist David Plouffe have raised money and offered advice. Obama himself will hold a fundraiser for Giannoulias on Thursday in Chicago.
"This is an urgent matter for us," Axelrod told the three dozen guests clustered on Saltzman's broad terrace.'Eminently winnable'
Although Giannoulias, who met Obama on a Chicago basketball court, describes the president as his political inspiration, he was not Obama's first choice for the seat. Obama tried to get Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is more experienced and better funded, to run but she declined.
On a conference call for the candidate last week, Plouffe called the Senate race "eminently winnable," a sober if hardly enthusiastic assessment in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans and hold every statewide office -- and where Obama's popularity remains above 50 percent.
One Democratic contributor backing Giannoulias termed the current mood a "malaise," particularly in contrast to the enthusiasm for Obama in 2008.
"Nobody's really enthusiastic," said the contributor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so he could talk plainly. "Even those who say, 'Alexi's not a bad guy, he didn't do too bad as treasurer, he says the right things.' "
Kirk, a Naval Reserve officer from suburban Chicago who describes himself as a fiscal conservative and a social moderate, is hammering Giannoulias for the troubles at Broadway Bank.
Giannoulias, who had touted his experience as a senior loan officer when running for treasurer, says he had little authority and departed before the bank's problems began.
"Alexi's been gone from the bank for four years. That book is closed," Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said after a news conference intended to cast Giannoulias as a better friend than Kirk to the nation's unemployed. He said Obama's fundraiser on Thursday reflects "a clear commitment at every level to help."
Kirk put it another way in an interview at the Lake County Fair.
"It means they're trying to rescue my opponent," Kirk said after chatting with a passel of 4-H kids and admiring their cows, pigs and rabbits. Kirk called Giannoulias's fundraising record "dismal" and said the Democrat "will have to almost entirely rely on the president for any ability to get on TV."
At the end of June, Kirk had $3.9 million in his campaign treasury, compared with $1 million for his opponent.
The Giannoulias camp concedes that it struggled to raise money in early spring, but says the numbers improved in June. Kirk gave Democrats an opening, according to several Giannoulias supporters, when he told an audience that he wanted to make Obama a one-term president and began getting bad press for embellishing his military awards.
"We corrected the record," Kirk said at the county fair. "I apologized."
Kirk has tried to link Giannoulias to the Illinois fiscal crisis. He calls the state's troubles, including Blagojevich's ongoing corruption trial, evidence of "the arrogance of a one-party state."
Giannoulias, meanwhile, challenges Kirk's claim to be a moderate. He has blasted the Republican's economic policies as "failed and reckless," and declared that Kirk's recent vote against extending unemployment benefits a blow to "the most vulnerable, the most damaged people across this country."'The most important race'
Heading into the final three months of campaigning, Giannoulias is tying his fate to Obama's fortunes.
"This is going to be the most important race in the country this year. This race is bigger than me," Giannoulias said at the Saltzman fundraiser. "It's important to elect people who are going to go and help President Obama to move forward."
In an odd twist, voters could choose to vote for both Giannoulias and Kirk on Nov. 2. A court ruled that Illinois must hold a special election to fill the few weeks that will remain of Obama's Senate term. Kirk and Giannoulias (along with Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones) will be on the ballot for that seat, as well as the full six-year term that will begin in January. Voters don't have to choose the same person for both jobs.