Among the biggest prizes Republicans hope to pick up this November is the Senate seat in Illinois formerly held by President Obama. The Republican running for this seat had seemed ideal, but now his reputation is in question. His opponent is not exactly clear of controversy either, and the two have engaged in an exchange that may have opened up space for Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones.
The Democratic candidate, Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, is a basketball-playing friend of the president, but his campaign has been hobbled by a state college savings program that lost tens of millions of dollars -- and by the failure of a bank owned by his family.
The Republican nominee, House Rep. Mark Kirk, was considered the dream candidate for the GOP. He's a moderate with views that play well in this generally Democratic state. But Kirk's front-runner status is now shaky after revelations that he has exaggerated his military record and other parts of his resume.
'Dream Candidate' No More
The past month or so has not been good for Kirk. But that's not because of anything he's said or done recently. Actually, it started with comments he made back in 2002, speaking at a House committee hearing not long after he was elected to represent Chicago's northern suburbs.
"I've been in office just one year. Before that, I was a Navy Reserve intelligence officer, was the Navy's intelligence officer of the year in 1998," Kirk said.
It turns out that Kirk's boastful claim isn't true -- he was part of a unit that was the Intelligence Unit of the Year, named such not by the Navy but by an outside group.
Kirk made another claim on the House floor in 2003: "The last time I was in Iraq, I was in uniform, flying at 20,000 feet, and the Iraqi Air Defense Network was shooting at us."
It turns out that's not entirely true either. The military has no record of Kirk's plane taking fire. And there were other exaggerations and embellishments, too.
Kirk claimed to have served in Operation Desert Storm, but he didn't. He claimed he commanded the Pentagon's war room, but that's not true either.
And Kirk's claims about his background as a teacher contain some inaccuracies, too.
He has often said he worked as a nursery school and middle school teacher. But an official at the upstate New York church where Kirk did part-time work in the nursery school tells The New York Times, "He was never, ever considered a teacher."
And though Kirk did teach full time for a year at an upscale prep school in London in the early '80s, his teaching experience still make his comments on the House floor on school safety in 2006 odd:
"I served as a teacher, and I remember the kids who were the brightest lights of our country's future, and I also remember those who bore scrutiny as those who might bring a gun to class," Kirk said.
Kirk has not been available to explain which kids bore such scrutiny -- the pre-schoolers or the English middle-schoolers.
Three weeks ago, Kirk said of the claims he's made about his military service that he "simply misremembered it wrong." After apologizing to newspaper editorial boards and in a handful of TV interviews, Kirk has refused interview requests, including NPR's.
In a statement, a campaign spokeswoman says congressman Kirk believes his time working in a nursery school and middle school provided valuable life experience, which he has built upon throughout his career in public service. Regarding his military service, the statement says those questions have been answered by the campaign, and then adds that, "voters will have a clear contrast on Election Day between someone who served honorably as a legislator and service member, and someone who lost millions of dollars of other people's money due to his recklessness and incompetence."
Kirk dodged reporters Monday after speaking at a policy forum for the candidates at a luncheon hosted by Chicago's Metropolitan Planning Council. He darted out through a kitchen doorway, through a service entrance and into a waiting SUV.
Turning The Tables
But his opponent, Giannoulias, did stop to comment on his opponent's recent troubles.
"I think this goes to the fact that he's got some serious questions that he needs to answer," Giannoulias said. "It's got nothing to do with me and congressman Kirk -- it has to do with congressman Kirk and the truth, and I think voters are starting to question, 'What else in his professional career is he not telling the truth about?' "
The Giannoulias campaign is suddenly turning the tables on Kirk, who for months has been attacking Giannoulias for mishandling a state college savings program and for the FDIC takeover of the now-failed bank owned by his family.
The Illinois GOP has been running ads portraying Giannoulias as a "mob banker."
The GOP's Sopranos ad refers to questionable loans made by the Giannoulias family's Broadway Bank, where the now 34-year-old Giannoulias worked as a senior loan officer before being elected state treasurer in 2006.
Giannoulias has still not filed financial disclosure forms required of Senate candidates, nor has he made public his tax returns, though he's promised to do so.
Still, it's Kirk who is losing ground in the most recent polls, and Giannoulias who is now in a statistical dead heat with his rival.
"It's a mess," says Roosevelt University political scientist Paul Green.
Green says the Senate race has devolved into charges and countercharges about who did or didn't do what.
"This is very Shakespearean. It's much to do about nothing. Puffing up your record, you know, everyone does it -- Mr. Kirk may have gone further than most -- but again, it's not what this contest should be about."
The nastiness of the race appears to be turning off many Illinois voters and opening the door for at least one candidate from a third party. A recent survey by Public Policy Polling shows support for Green Party candidate Jones jumped this month to 14 percent among voters, with Giannoulias favored by 31 percent and Kirk at 30 percent; 24 percent of voters were undecided.
Obama's former seat is open because the man chosen by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich as his replacement, Democratic Sen. Roland Burris, is not seeking election.