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Senate hopefuls take turns sabotaging own campaigns

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SPRINGFIELD, Ill. | From the outside, it's shaping up as a race neither candidate wants to win.

Front-running Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk has stepped on a political land mine of his own creation, leaving him as damaged as his Democratic opponent in the race for the Illinois Senate seat once held by President Obama.

Mr. Kirk, a 21-year veteran in the Navy Reserve, was caught exaggerating his military record. He claimed an award he didn't win. He mentioned serving in overseas conflicts while he was safely in the United States. He stretched the facts when talking about combat and coming under fire. And his troubles don't end there: Even his references to being a teacher are being questioned.

Two months ago, it was Mr. Kirk's Democratic opponent, Alexi Giannoulias, who was on the ropes.

Federal regulators had taken over his family's Chicago bank, Broadway Bank, which had grown insolvent because of bad loans and a bad economy. Stories were resurrected about the bank lending money to criminals, leading Republicans to start calling Mr. Giannoulias a "mob banker."

Illinois voters now find themselves with one candidate who puffed up his credentials and one with an iffy business resume, both of them seeking a seat that former Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell to the highest bidder. Mr. Obama held the seat for four years before winning the White House, and a Democratic loss would be a major embarrassment to the administration.

"To me, it seems like we're locked in a race of the lesser of two evils," said Jerry Stocks, Republican chairman for Macon County, in central Illinois.

Polls taken before the latest revelations broke gave Mr. Kirk a small lead of 3 to 4 percentage points, with about a fifth of the state's voters undecided. Most political forecasters see the race as a tossup.

Some Kirk supporters argue that their candidate will rebound. The Republican's backers say he is a moderate, five-term congressman with years of experience as a Navy intelligence officer, while Mr. Giannoulias is a 34-year-old former banker serving his first term in office and best known for his friendship and basketball pickup games with Mr. Obama.

"When the dust settles, Mark Kirk will continue to enjoy a great deal of trust and support and confidence," said Dan Cronin, Republican chairman in DuPage County, vital GOP territory.

But the revelations undermine Mr. Kirk's credibility, which was supposed to be a major asset.

Mr. Kirk has largely disappeared from public view since apologizing for misstating his military credentials. He did give a speech Monday but wound up fleeing from reporters afterward when they wanted to ask questions about the issue.

Meanwhile, Mr. Giannoulias is sharing the spotlight at fundraisers with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others with ties to the president. White House officials now see Mr. Kirk's troubles as an opportunity for the Democratic nominee, and have dispatched White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina to the state.

Mr. Giannoulias also has rolled out policy announcements on energy and infrastructure, bolstering his argument that he's focused on issues while his GOP rival scrambles.

Giannoulias spokeswoman Kathleen Strand said the fundraising events were being planned before Mr. Kirk's latest problems surfaced. But the situation has helped the Democratic campaign.

If nothing else, it feeds into the Democrat's strategy of portraying Mr. Kirk as a calculating Washington insider - "a typical politician who will do and say anything," as Ms. Strand put it.

The seat figures prominently in Mr. Blagojevich's arrest and impeachment. The former Democratic governor, now on trial and insisting on his innocence, was accused of scheming to trade an appointment to the vacant seat for political contributions, a job or some other personal benefit.

Campaign manager Eric Elk said Mr. Kirk has dealt with stories suggesting he exaggerated his military service by apologizing and correcting the record. Mr. Elk said Mr. Kirk's mistakes don't compare to Giannoulias' "damning record of losing other people's money" as state treasurer and as a private banker.

Mr. Elk would say little about how Mr. Kirk will reassure any voters who now question his judgment and honesty. "In the end, the election is about the economy and putting people back to work," Mr. Elk said.

Mr. Cronin, the DuPage County GOP chairman, said he was confident Mr. Kirk would get back on track. He noted it wasn't long ago that people were wondering whether Mr. Giannoulias would have to drop out of the race.

"The race looked like it was over," Mr. Cronin said. "But there's always something."

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