DECATUR, Ill. — The race for President Barack Obama's old Senate seat has erupted into a volatile, unpredictable battle in which the candidates' personal flaws outweigh their philosophical differences in most voters' minds.
It's also a closely watched referendum on Obama, who held the seat from January 2005 until his November 2008 election as president.
It's also partly a test of which political party's economic message resonates in a diverse state with double-digit unemployment and a state government confronting one of the nation's worst budget crises.
However, the race is largely playing out against a more personal backdrop: The two major party candidates, Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Rep. Mark Kirk, are each entangled in controversies that voters say reinforce their skepticism about politicians — skepticism that's already high here, since former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, ousted from office last year, is awaiting a verdict after being tried on federal corruption charges.
What will that mean in November?
Will it mean, as Peoria County Republican Chairman Rudy Lewis said, that people will reject the 34-year-old Giannoulias because his family bank has collapsed and he's close to Obama?
"He's a carbon copy of the president, and Obama is a socialist," Lewis charged.
Or does it mean that voters will reject the onetime favorite Kirk, a 50-year-old moderate Republican who's in trouble because he's embellished his military record, reinforcing voters' belief that politicians can't be trusted?
"Kirk should be farther ahead than he is," said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois.
Recent polls show the two candidates in a virtual tie.
This much is clear in small-town and rural Illinois, where this Senate slugfest between two Chicago-area politicians is likely to be decided: "This race has been hijacked by personal controversies," said Mike Kroll, a computer store owner in Galesburg.
Voters, though, want most to talk about the economy, and they're searching for empathy as well as answers. "Most people want something different. They feel their representatives are out of touch with working people," said Matthew Dial, a union official in Decatur, an industrial and farming center of 77,000 that's home to agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland.
The national parties both want this seat — Democrats because it was Obama's and would help put Blagojevich behind them, and Republicans because they'd gain a seat and tarnish Obama.
"The fact that it was his seat just puts additional pressure on Democrats, because if they lose, all the talking heads will say here's more evidence the president is losing his grip on things," said William Hall, a professor of political science at Bradley University in Peoria. However, he added, most people don't consider it Obama's seat, since Democrat Roland Burris has held it for the past year and a half.
Even so, Democrats are finding that for many voters, Obama may as well be on the ballot. State Rep. Robert Flider, a Democrat, campaigns door to door in the Decatur area, where unemployment in June was 12.2 percent. He found the party's image "hurts among some voters. They talk about health care, worried how it will affect them." Obama earlier this year signed into law a massive overhaul of the nation's health care system, a change that nearly all Republicans opposed.
Add those woes to the resume of the charismatic Giannoulias, who used to play neighborhood basketball games with Obama in Chicago. The president plans to appear at a Chicago fundraiser for Giannoulias on Thursday.
When Giannoulias ran for state treasurer four years ago, he talked up his experience at his family's Chicago-based Broadway Bank, where he was its chief lender for the prior four years.
Several loans raised eyebrows, notably two to individuals with ties to organized crime. Newspaper accounts have found no evidence that Giannoulias approved such loans. The bank collapsed earlier this year, largely because of its concentration of bad construction and commercial real estate loans.
"There's an economic context to what happened," said campaign spokeswoman Kathleen Strand, who said that many banks nationwide with such loans outstanding also face trouble.
Democrats plan a massive get-out-the-vote drive and think they can overcome these obstacles. They say that people don't know the candidate beyond his Chicago base, so he can still be defined.
Political scientist Gaines isn't so sure. "The fact that his family bank collapsed is one of the things that's dragging him down."
Kirk hasn't capitalized on it, though, because campaign coverage has been dominated by his misstatements about his military record.
Kirk was commissioned a Naval Reserve officer in 1989, and flew missions over Haiti, Iraq and Kosovo. He's said that he once was given an award as the Navy's intelligence officer of the year and served in the 1991 Gulf War.
He didn't serve in that war, however, and the award went to his entire unit.
Kirk said he'd been careless. His campaign didn't respond to a request for comment.
Lewis, the Peoria GOP chairman, insisted that too much is being made of the misstatements. "He is a veteran, and he served honorably," Lewis said.
However, Kirk's gaffes weigh heavily on loyal Republicans such as Bob Simpson, a Galesburg gun shop owner. Simpson already was wary of Kirk for not being conservative enough — "I'm a one issue voter, Second Amendment, and I didn't like Kirk from the start," he said. Kirk is considered a friend of gun-control interests.
At the moment, Simpson figures he'll probably vote for Kirk in November, if only to help Republicans gain a congressional majority.
"My only other choice is not to vote," he said.
That none-of-the-above option adds another element of uncertainty to this race.
"The scariest part of all this," said Macon County Democratic Chairman Jim Underwood, "is trying to get people out to vote."
What voters ultimately seem to want isn't a specific program or agenda; they seem to want a candidate who'll show some sensitivity and honor.
"I haven't seen a lot of enthusiasm for anybody," said Bryan Smith, the executive director of Township Officials of Illinois, which represents local government officials.
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