CHICAGO — While insisting Illinois voters deserve "more honesty" from politicians, Republican Senate candidate Mark Kirk repeatedly ducked questions or fell back on stock answers Tuesday when pressed about his military record, attacks on his opponent and other issues in one of the nation's most-watched Senate races.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Kirk repeated his past apologies for exaggerating his accomplishments in the U.S. Naval Reserve, but would not comment in detail about the false claims or say why he made them.
The five-term congressman denied intentionally misleading anyone but said others must judge whether there's a difference between incorrect, careless statements and outright lying. "That's for the people of Illinois to decide," he said.
Kirk refused to say whether he agrees that Alexi Giannoulias, his Democratic rival for the Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama, is a "failed mob banker" – a label used almost daily by Republican allies and his own campaign.
"You want to make sure that you're speaking with precision," he said.
Kirk was so precise during the hourlong interview that he described Giannoulias' actions with virtually the same phrase – "he lent a tremendous amount of money to mobsters and felons" – eight times.
Kirk walked a fine line on many policy issues, delivering his most direct statements when disagreeing with Giannoulias on fiscal issues. He said Giannoulias supports more borrowing, spending and taxing, an approach Kirk called a "long-term economic danger to the United States."
The cautious approach comes after Kirk has suffered major setbacks triggered by his own comments. Reporters have found holes and inconsistencies in statements about things as mundane as a long-ago sailing accident and his college-era teaching experience. Most damaging were false claims about his military record, including Kirk saying he was named the Navy's intelligence officer of the year when he wasn't.
Kirk also has suggested he came under fire while an observer on flights over Kosovo and Iraq, but he repeatedly refused Tuesday to discuss those incidents or even confirm whether they took place.
On policy issues:
_ Kirk said he doesn't think this is the right time for legislation known as the DREAM Act to offer legal residency to young people in the country illegally, but he wouldn't take a position on the basic concept.
_ He wants to reverse the recent health care overhaul but said he probably wouldn't pursue the idea immediately if elected.
_ He wasn't ready to take a position on reversing the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy until a military study is finished in December. Senate Republicans on Tuesday blocked an effort by Democrats and the White House to lift the ban on gays from serving openly in the military.
_ He said the invasion of Iraq produced benefits for the United States and the Middle East, but he wouldn't say whether the war ultimately was worth its cost in lives and money. "I think in the end we shouldn't look back. We should say ... what have we achieved? And we have achieved the end of a terrorist-sponsoring nation, we have achieved the end of a very unstable dictatorship," Kirk said.
Kirk said the campaign should focus on future votes the next senator will make, not the candidates' past actions.
But he brought along a sheet that highlights loans the Giannoulias family's Broadway Bank made to people with criminal records or suspected links to organized crime.
"We should set a very high standard and then we should pick the candidate with the high standard. We all understand that no one is perfect but this state needs higher standards and more honesty," Kirk said.
The Giannoulias family's Chicago bank failed in April, and Republicans have tried to make it a central issue of the campaign. They've repeatedly attacked Giannoulias for businesses practices that included making millions of dollars in loans to some convicted felons.
Giannoulias, who won the Illinois treasurer's office four years ago by emphasizing his banking experience, has said he left before the loans in question were issued and while the business was still financially health.
While Kirk has long positioned himself as a moderate who is willing to cooperate with Democrats, he said Tuesday he welcomes the conservative tea party movement. Kirk said he is concerned about government spending and could work with tea party favorites such as Christine O'Donnell, the GOP Senate nominee in Delaware.
Associated Press Writer Phil Elliot contributed to this report.