By Abdon M. Pallasch
Chicago Sun-Times Political Writer
CHICAGO--President Obama praised U.S. Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias at two Chicago fundraisers Thursday, saying, "He's comfortable in his own skin. He doesn't shift with the wind. He doesn't pretend to be something that he's not. You know . . . who he is today and who he'll be tomorrow."
That was an apparent jab at Giannoulias' Republican opponent Mark Kirk, who Giannoulias has criticized for flip-flopping on some big issues.
Obama's appearance at the Drake and at a private dinner was expected to raise $750,000 to $800,000 to be split between Giannoulias' campaign and the national campaign to elect Democratic senators.
"Alexi is my friend," Obama said. "I know his character. I know how much he loves this country . . . He has been a great advocate on behalf of the people of Illinois . . . You can trust him."
Without mentioning the hard knocks Giannoulias has taken during the campaign over the collapse of his family's Broadway Bank, Obama said, "And let me just also say -- because I play basketball with him, and I have still some sore ribs to prove it -- he's a competitor. And we've seen that in this campaign. He just keeps on plowing ahead because he knows that he wants to serve, in some very tough circumstances. In a tough political season, he has not wavered."
Without mentioning his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, who left the office Friday to run for mayor, Obama quipped, ". . . By the way, have you seen my chief of staff? I was like looking around, I was like, 'What happened?'"
At least three of Emanuel's rivals for mayor were among the 400 donors under the 24 chandeliers of the Drake's ornate Gold Coast Room, including Rep. Danny Davis, who Obama gave a shout-out to. Rev. James Meeks, who served in the state senate with Obama and Cook County Board of Review Commissioner Larry Rogers, Jr. were also in attendance.
Emanuel scheduled no public appearances Thursday so as not to steal any limelight from Obama's visit.
State Republican Party Chair Pat Brady said that Obama's need to appear in his home state -- which is supposed to be the bluest of the blue -- just 26 days before Election Day shows the Democrats fear a Republican landslide in Illinois and around the country.
Democratic campaign strategist David Plouffe said voters should take the opposite message: "I can assure you, if we didn't think Alexi could get to 50%, then the president and the vice president would not be campaigning there. When you've got this many competitive elections, you have to make sure you're spending your time and your resources and your effort in places where you see a pathway to victory."
Before introducing Obama, Giannoulias took a slap at Kirk and at Republican operative Karl Rove: "Now, after Congressman Kirk helped Karl Rove wreck this economy, Karl Rove is repaying the favor with millions of dollars in false attack ads."
Giannoulias introduced Obama as "My friend, my mentor, one of the greatest fighters I have ever encountered."
Obama gave Giannoulias a back-slapping hug on the way in and another one on the way out.
He said Giannoulias would fight to preserve the tax cut for the middle class while Kirk would vote to spend $700 billion to give a tax cut to the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans.
And he repeated the tale of Giannoulias saving the Des Plaines suitmaker that makes Obama's suits.
"A lot of you know what he did for Hartmarx -- which, by the way, made this suit," Obama said to applause.
"It's a company that's employed people in this state for more than a hundred years. And when it fell on hard times, and a big bank threatened to pull its credit, risking more than 600 jobs, Alexi stepped in. He told that bank if they did that, they'd no longer manage the money of Illinois taxpayers. He helped save that company, those jobs."
Tickets for the event at the Drake ranged from $500 to $2,500. Tickets for the private dinner co-hosted by Leslie Bluhm, her sister Meredith Bluhm Wolf and her husband, David Hefland went for $15,000.
Around the time Obama spoke, The Chicago Tribune announced its endorsement of Mark Kirk for Senate and the Sun-Times announced its endorsement of Giannoulias.
Obama introduced all the major state elected officials at the Drake, save for Gov. Quinn who met him on the tarmac at O'Hare Airport but had his own rally to attend.
"Most of the polls say the same thing: Alexi will win; Pat Quinn will win; The entire ticket will win," Obama told the cheering crowd.
Obama and Giannoulias both heaped praise on Sen. Dick Durbin. Obama also noted outgoing Sen. Roland Burris' presence. Attorney General Lisa Madigan -- who Obama and Emanuel had tried to talk into running for senate -- was also there.
"We've got the next lieutenant governor of the great state of Illinois -- Sheila Simon, who, by the way, knows a little bit about good senators," Obama said, referring to her late father, Sen. Paul Simon. "Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky is here -- love Jan ... Comptroller Dan Hynes is here. Senate President John Cullerton is here. The next treasurer, Robin Kelly, is in the house. The next comptroller, David Miller, is in the house."
Kirk spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski said after Obama's visit, "It is no surprise President Obama came to town for the Democratic candidate for United States Senate. This election is a choice between Mark Kirk - a fiscal conservative who wants to tax less, spend less and borrow less and Alexi Giannoulias who can't name one spending bill he would vote against in addition to supporting higher state and federal income taxes."
Contributing: Lynn Sweet