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Rivals for Obama's Seat Spar Over Character

CHICAGO -- Democrat Alexi Giannoulias portrayed Republican Mark Kirk as an untrustworthy friend of Karl Rove during a debate Tuesday night, while Kirk wondered how Giannoulias could continue to question his military record when he has never served a day in uniform.

While there were no major fireworks in the televised debate between the two major party candidates for President Barack Obama's old Senate seat, they did lay out their policy differences on some issues, including gay marriage and immigration.

But the hourlong debate always circled back to the issues of character that have dominated the campaign and filled the airwaves with negative commercials from both sides.

Kirk, a Naval Reserve officer who has admitted embellishing his military record, said he has publicly taken responsibility for his misstatements and corrected them. Kirk said it's the "ultimate irony" that Giannoulias continues to criticize him yet has never been in the military.

"You were back in the rear with the gear," said Kirk, a five-term congressman from Chicago's northern suburbs.

Giannoulias, the Illinois state treasurer, insisted Kirk has not fully answered all the questions about a chain of embellishments.

Kirk has claimed he won a prestigious military award, though it was awarded to his entire unit, and said he served in the first Gulf War and the invasion of Iraq when he didn't. He also said he served in combat and that he came under fire while flying over Kosovo and Iraq, but he later backtracked.

"Why with this record would you not tell the truth? Why would you make all this stuff up? Congressman, it's a simple question: Where you shot at or not?" Giannoulias pressed Kirk during the debate.

Kirk said Giannoulias was the one who hadn't taken responsibility for his family's failed Chicago bank, where he worked as an executive before being elected treasurer in 2006, and for losses in a college savings fund in the treasurer's office.

"I'm not perfect, I made mistakes, but I owned them and corrected them," Kirk said. "Meanwhile, my opponent, nothing is really his fault."

Giannoulias defended his family's failed bank, which had loaned money to criminals. He said he was proud of Broadway Bank, which regulators shut down in April when it couldn't raise new capital.

Throughout the debate, Giannoulias repeatedly tied Kirk to Rove, a political adviser to former President George W. Bush. Giannoulias has been targeted in ads by Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies and its affiliate, American Crossroads, a group launched under Rove's direction.

"Congressman Kirk helped Karl Rove wreck the economy and he's repaying the favor by giving him millions of dollars in undisclosed contributions," Giannoulias said.

Kirk said outside groups such as Rove's that are helping candidates should disclose their donors.

"I think the key issue is disclosure. We need reform that has every candidate or group seeking to influence elections disclose their donors" Kirk said.

The landmark U.S. Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, earlier this year opened the way for corporations and unions to spend money in elections and has led to many new groups being formed.

The candidates differed on political issues in the race, including gay marriage. Giannoulias supports it while Kirk does not, although he said he supports civil unions.

The candidates also differed on their stances on immigration reform, namely the DREAM Act. The legislation, sponsored by Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin for nearly a decade, would help grant U.S. residency to immigrant youths who have been brought into the country illegally by their parents. The legislation would require youths to spend time in college or the military.

While Kirk did not answer definitively during the debate if he would support such legislation, afterward he told reporters that he would vote against the DREAM Act -- the first time he has publicly said so. Kirk said he would focus on border security first.

"It's not the time for the DREAM Act right now," he said. "If it came up, I'd vote no. First border control, then everything else."

Giannoulias said he would support the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform. He said current immigration laws separate families.

Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones and Libertarian Mike Labno were not included in the debate put on by Chicago's WLS-TV and the League of Women Voters of Illinois.

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