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Mark Kirk's ex-wife to advise campaign; ripped Kirk consultant as "Svengali figure in his life"

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WASHINGTON--Kimberly Vertolli, the ex-wife of Illinois Senate nominee Mark Kirk -- who recently called a top Kirk consultant, Dodie McCracken, a "kind of Svengali figure in his life" -- will begin advising his campaign.

Vertolli's role is being worked out. Vertolli said Monday that Kirk told her "he wants her to be a close adviser" and "that he trusts and respects my judgment."

A former Navy officer -- an Annapolis graduate -- and an attorney who worked for the CIA, Vertolli has the credentials to be an important surrogate to the Kirk campaign, vouching for him in the wake of what became a series of stories about Kirk embellishing his Navy and teaching resume. Though she differs with Kirk on some issues, Vertolli could help with fund-raising and appeal to swing independent voters and young suburban females who are on the fence between Kirk and his rival, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias.

This comes after Vertolli gave an interview to Chicago Magazine's Carol Felsenthal, posted Aug. 4, that pulled back the curtain in the Kirk campaign, a closely held enterprise that circled the wagon even tighter after the first report surfaced over Memorial Day weekend about Kirk exaggerating his military record.

Vertolli, in that interview, also blamed McCracken for breaking up their marriage. "I think if Dodie McCracken had not continued to be in our lives, we probably would still be married," she told Felsenthal.

Kirk and Vertolli divorced in 2009, after eight years of marriage. Still, Vertolli was at Kirk's Senate campaign kickoff last year. Vertolli, 37, told Felsenthal that she supports Kirk, wants him to win and loves him.

Vertolli told Felsenthal she was not going to campaign for Kirk as long as McCracken was around, describing her as a "very pernicious force on his team who is wielding a disproportionate amount of negative influence on him. . . . She acts as this kind of Svengali figure in his life."

McCracken, 52, handled press during Kirk's first run for Congress in 2000 and was his district director for a few years. She moved to a Washington suburb and runs a public affairs firm.

The Kirk campaign wants to keep McCracken's involvement under the radar. I'm told by several sources she is involved in day-to-day operational and strategic decision making. Kirk campaign spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski told me McCracken is a consultant who works on campaign "messaging."

Kirk and Giannoulias are tied in the most recent poll, and the race has been close for months.

A problem for Kirk is that he has yet to find a defining message for himself as clear and concise as the "mob banker" branding he has for Giannoulias.

While Kirk as of June 30 was way ahead of Giannoulias in fund-raising -- $3.9 million cash on hand compared to $1 million for Giannoulias -- the gap was bridged some by President Obama's Aug. 5 fund-raiser for Giannoulias in Chicago.

Vertolli, in her interview with Felsenthal, said on the record what I have been hearing off the record from other frustrated Republicans who want Kirk to win -- that Kirk essentially needs to enlarge his circle of advisers, whether they play a formal or informal role in his campaign.

Kirk, who has a 21-year Navy reservist career, waited a month before holding a press conference to discuss the resume padding stories, letting a damaging narrative grow unrebutted.

"I think [McCracken] poorly advised Mark on how to handle that," Vertolli told Felsenthal. "Dodie is the one who controls what is said, how it's said, to whom it's said."

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Lynn Sweet

Lynn Sweet is a columnist and the Washington Bureau Chief for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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This page contains a single entry by Lynn Sweet published on August 17, 2010 8:09 AM.

Senate GOP political shop pinching Giannoulias on donor was the previous entry in this blog.

Giannoulias, Durbin on Illinois campaign blitz is the next entry in this blog.

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