WASHINGTON -- In their first debate, Illinois Senate rivals Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk drew stark contrasts Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" over job creation -- and whose credibility is most flawed.
Giannoulias said Kirk was telling "whoppers" when he claimed he was a fiscal hawk. "Look, the congressman has told some real whoppers during this campaign, but that may be the biggest one of all," Giannoulias said.
Kirk brandished a paper with the names, he said, of "convicted mobsters and felons" who received bank loans when Giannoulias was an executive at Broadway Bank. "The [names] in yellow are the ones where he was the senior loan officer of the bank; people like Michael 'Jaws' Giorango, Demitri Stavropoulos, Boris Stratievsky," Kirk said.
The first of three debates -- Kirk and Giannoulias meet again in Chicago on Oct. 19 and Oct. 27 -- took place as the rivals remain deadlocked in polls in one of the biggest Nov. 2 prizes in the nation -- President Obama's old Senate seat. Host David Gregory pressed each about their major credibility issues during the 30-minute session.
Kirk wanted more debates because he thought he would "win" by sitting next to Giannoulias and demonstrating that he had a better grasp of substance than his rival. On the issues, Giannoulias held his own.
Giannoulias was defensive when Gregory asked whether he knew that Broadway Bank (family owned until it failed in April) was lending money to crime figures. "We didn't know the extent of that activity," Giannoulias said. Asked again by Gregory if he knew, Giannoulias said, "I didn't know the extent of their activity, of course not."
After the debate, Kirk told reporters the Giannoulias answer "lacks some credibility given how heavily these figures were covered in the Tribune and Sun-Times."
Giannoulias, also speaking to reporters after the debate, said his remarks were "consistent with everything I've said over the past few years ... the folks back in Illinois know that I have been very consistent."
Asked to further explain, Giannoulias said, "We knew there were rumblings of problems. These weren't loans that I was intimately involved in. These weren't relationships that I brought to the bank."
During the debate, Kirk was forced to revisit the lowest point of his campaign, which is still impacting the race once seen as Kirk's to lose: a series of embellishments about his career as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer.
Kirk repeated an apology he has been offering since this summer. "Well, I made mistakes with regard to my military misstatements, I was careless, and I learned a very painful and humbling lesson."
Gregory took on one of the embellishments -- Kirk's claim he was shot at while flying over Iraq. "Congressman, did you say that you were once shot at when in fact you were not?"
"But whether the squadron came under fire or not, it's ... very confusing," Kirk said.
A clear contrast between Kirk and Giannoulias is over job creation and whether the Obama Recovery Act has spurred employment. Kirk said the stimulus was a mistake; Giannoulias said that without it, things would be worse.
"We recognize that the stimulus has largely failed," Kirk said. "...It didn't answer the question, what happens when all the borrowed money runs out?"
Giannoulias said the stimulus had flaws, "but if, if you take a look at what would have happened, I mean, do we need to see soup lines down the street to figure out what would have happened? We avoided -- and all economists will tell you that millions of jobs were saved because of the Recovery Act, and we avoided a second Great Depression."