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Thursday, June 10, 2010 10:03 pm

Candidate Mark Kirk is damaged goods

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U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk
PHOTO BY LANE CHRISTIANSEN

Political reporters and pundits have a bad habit of saying: “If present trends continue.. . .” The truth is, in politics, “present trends” almost always change.

Last week, Illinoisans were treated to a classic example of how that overused phrase can so often be horribly wrong.

Let’s take a look back, shall we?

For years, the Republican powers that be in this state have dreamt of finding a “perfect” statewide candidate.

Social liberal, fiscal moderate without a hint of scandal. That’s the key to winning statewide in Illinois. Finding that person hasn’t been so easy, however.

Then GOP Congressman Mark Kirk decided to move up the political ladder to U.S. Senate. Kirk is pro-choice, pro gay rights, tough on guns, but a fiscal hawk in the tradition of Jim Edgar.

Best of all, Kirk serves in the Navy Reserves. Reporters, as a class, love military men, and Kirk’s stories about his daring feats of bravery have made the tough-nosed Chicago media drool all over him.

A decorated Naval intelligence officer works great with voters as well. Kirk could separate himself from average politicians by pointing to his honorable service. Despite some bumps along the way, the military has long been one of the most respected institutions in this patriotic nation.

A recent USA Today poll found that by a margin of two to one, Americans would “rather vote for a candidate who has never served in Congress over one with experience.” And since “Republican congressman” polls even lower than “congressman,” Congressman Kirk would be at a serious disadvantage without that Naval service.

Until last week, Kirk looked to many like a slam-dunk winner – or as much of one as a Republican could be in this state. The trend against the Democrats was certainly working in his favor. And Kirk’s Democratic opponent Alexi Giannoulias had been pummeled left and right over stories about how his now-defunct family bank had made loans to mobsters and had other nefarious ties.

Giannoulias endured one of the worst three months of any candidate I’ve ever seen, starting shortly after he won the February Democratic primary. He was hammered relentlessly in the media, and the pack was full-on engaged the day his family’s bank was seized by federal regulators.

Unsourced speculation abounded that the youthful state treasurer would be pushed out of the U.S. Senate contest by the White House. Nobody had any real basis for those claims except a strong belief that the horrific trend dictated that Giannoulias would be gone any day.

But then something happened which turned all of that smug punditry on its head.

It turns out that Congressman Kirk is a serial exaggerator.

The Washington Post reported over Memorial Day weekend that Kirk had falsely claimed for years that he had won “the Navy’s Intelligence Officer of the Year” award when his unit actually won an award from a private group, but recommended by Navy brass.

Over the next few days, Kirk was forced to admit a whole host of untruths. He hadn’t served in 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. He wasn’t a veteran of 1990-91’s Operation Desert Storm. Kirk had to backtrack from bravado comments he made about being shot at by the Iraqis. He hadn’t “served in Iraq,” as his recent TV ad claimed. He also didn’t “command” the Pentagon’s “War Room.”

Kirk didn’t pull it off well, either. “I simply misremembered incorrectly,” was his excuse to the Sun-Times, whatever that means. “You should speak with utter precision,” he admitted to the Tribune, even though most of these false claims had little to do with “precision” and much to do with overstating his service record.

So, will this years-long stream of prevarications ruin Kirk? Well, he has certainly damaged his credibility, particularly with his many friends in the media. The “current trend” would say he’s in bad shape indeed.

Still, this is a long campaign. There will no doubt be much more mud slung back and forth before it’s over.

If I had to guess, I’d say Kirk’s bizarre overstatements will most likely knock him off his high horse and force him to actually engage with Giannoulias, rather than be content to constantly deride the treasurer as unfit for office. But he’s showing no sign of that yet.

Just remember that this race isn’t over for either candidate. Don’t let anybody tell you it is. Politics is always full of surprising twists and turns and I’m sure there are lots more ahead of us.

What we’ve seen here is an equalization of sorts. Both candidates are now damaged goods. But the trend on election day is the only one that matters.

Rich Miller publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter, and thecapitolfaxblog.com.

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