CHICAGO — The candidates in one of the nation's most closely watched Senate races aren't saying much about health care, the Gulf oil spill or even the economy. Instead, they're discussing who's the least trustworthy.
Republican U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk says Democrat Alexi Giannoulias is a "mob banker." His allies compare Giannoulias to Tony Soprano and criticize him for wrongly claiming to still head a charity that's actually defunct.
Meanwhile, Giannoulias argues Kirk has a problem with the truth. His campaign highlights every new development related to Kirk exaggerating his military service.
Illinois finds itself in an odd parallel universe in this midterm election as the rest of the country watches an ideological clash between the parties over the size of government and the best answers for the recession, with the insurgent tea party movement fanning the debate.
Illinois' candidates, while competing for President Barack Obama's old seat, are talking mostly about each other. The disparity is causing confusion among some voters.
"I want to hear what they propose will help Illinois and get the state out of the mess it's in," said Wayne "Ren" Sirles, 68, a peach and apple grower in rural southern Illinois, where both candidates have campaigned. "Come and tell me what you're proposing."
Bob Biehl, a corn and soybean grower near Belleville in southwestern Illinois, said he also is wondering about the precarious economy.
"I would want to hear about their positives and what they can do," Biehl said. "This country's in a world of hurt as far as I'm concerned."
The exchange of insults rather than ideas speaks to certain political conditions prevailing in the race, and it's not clear if and when the subject will change.
As a Republican competing in a Democratic-leaning state with many moderate independent voters, Kirk may be less eager to heighten the philosophical differences being pressed by his GOP counterparts in more conservative places, such as sharp cutbacks in government and tough new restrictions on immigrants.
And recent political scandals involving Illinois Democrats and the corruption trial of ousted Gov. Rod Blagojevich make ethics a ripe issue. Trashing one's opponent "is a distasteful but long-standing tradition in American politics," said DePaul University political science professor Michael Mezey.
With his business record and character under attack, Democrat Giannoulias clearly relishes responding in kind when the opportunity arises.
Campaign officials say that between the attacks and counterattacks, Giannoulias is still finding time to talk about the issues in the state. "When we go out there, when we're talking to voters, we're not talking about the headlines of the newspaper. Alexi is talking about jobs and the economy and having that discussion," Giannoulias spokesman Matt McGrath said. When he talks about issues, Giannoulias tries to link Kirk to the GOP establishment.
Kirk, too, has tried to focus on "low tax, pro-growth job creation policies," said Kirk spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski.
Who is gaining the most from the mutual abuse isn't clear. The new stain on Kirk over his misrepresentation of his military record may help reduce the impact of Giannoulias' past problems, including his family's failed bank.
The campaigns went negative from the get-go and have grown increasingly so with the recent disclosure that Kirk embellished some accomplishments during his 21 years in the Naval Reserves.
The Washington Post revealed Kirk had falsely claimed to have won a prestigious award, which it discovered after prompting from the Giannoulias campaign. Kirk has since acknowledged other misrepresentations, news coverage of which the Giannoulias campaign dutifully blasts out via e-mail.
Kirk's overstatements include claiming he was a veteran of Operation Desert Storm when he didn't participate. He also says he doesn't recall coming under enemy fire when he flew on reconnaissance missions over Iraq, although a C-SPAN video shows Kirk on the House floor saying the "Iraqi air defense network was shooting at us."
Kirk's untruths have given Giannoulias ammunition to use against Kirk after being the subject of attacks for months because of the failure of a Chicago bank owned by Giannoulias's family. The bank, where Giannoulias was an executive before being elected state treasurer in 2006, was shut down by regulators in April.
Kirk and the national Republicans have repeatedly blasted Giannoulias for the bank's business practices, including revelations it had loaned two convicted felons $20 million. In an online video, the National Republican Senatorial Committee says Giannoulias would "make Tony Soprano proud."
"When I was serving in Afghanistan ... he was making loans to convicted felons and mobsters," Kirk has said.
Most recently, the Illinois Republican Party circulated a blog posting that said Giannoulias was wrongly claiming on his official website that he "chairs" a now-defunct foundation he started to help children, the poor and disaster victims. The Giannoulias campaign said he shut down the charity after he took office and they alerted the treasurer's office to the mistake on their website.
Illinois isn't the only state where candidates have exchanged insults, although the race has turned nasty sooner during a time when Kirk and Giannoulias, both not well known statewide, should be introducing themselves to voters, said Christopher Mooney, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield.
But the mudslinging, Biehl suspects, could spur voters to tune out the campaign and deter good people from seeking office. "I would never go into politics," he sniffed. "If you're not crooked now, you will be in four or five years."
Associated Press Writer Jim Suhr contributed to this report from Kansas City, Mo.