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Republican Mark Kirk (left) and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias, contenders for Roland Burris’s U.S. Senate seat, sparred Tuesday night.

The debate Tuesday night between Democrat Alexi Giannoulias and Republican Mark Kirk enjoyed none of the whacko moments featured in the notorious New York gubernatorial debate the night before. Still, Giannoulias seemed to take at least a line or two from the New York script with his repeated mention (nine times, by my count) of Karl Rove as an evil player in Kirk’s campaign and with his persistent digging at Kirk’s claim of having come under fire while aboard an airplane in Iraq—“Were you shot at or not?”

No one would call the debate between the U.S. Senate contenders, sponsored by the League of Women Voters and WLS-TV and moderated by ABC’s George Stephanopoulos, entertaining—or enlightening. Basically, it was a fight over whose character is crummier—that of Kirk, who hyped up a resume that didn’t need hyping, or that of Giannoulias, whose first job at his father’s bank saw him involved in loan-making to felons and even a mobster or two. As always, Kirk couldn’t wait to mention one of the latter—Michael “Jaws” Giorango.

For the next debate, Kirk’s team ought to figure out a way to arrange the staging so that their guy is not so diminished by Giannoulias’s height. Then they should push Kirk to show the fluidity and toughness that he displayed at a post-debate press conference with reporters.

Indeed, that press conference perhaps held more telling moments than the debate itself. Giannoulias went first, repeating for reporters his talking points in a wooden manner. Asked as he had been in the debate to name a single military program he would cut, he reverted to Kirk’s pledge, given during the debate, to cut the second engine in the F-35 fighter jet. Reporters were given an opportunity to ask one last question of Giannoulias, but nobody bit, and, after eight minutes, the candidate exited.

In his time with the press—14 minutes—Kirk seemed to blossom. Stephanopoulos had asked Giannoulias, “Is there any Supreme Court justice appointed by a Republican on the court today that you would’ve supported?” The Democratic candidate said he couldn’t think of any offhand. Kirk wondered to reporters why Giannoulias hadn’t mentioned the all-important swing vote, Anthony Kennedy. “He couldn’t name one,” Kirk marveled, implying that Giannoulias, a lawyer, was no Supreme Court expert. (I had wondered why Giannoulias didn’t toss out the name of the just-retired John Paul Stevens.)

I grabbed the last press conference question and asked Kirk if he regretted giving up his safe congressional seat—it’s a near certainty he would have won a sixth term from his North Shore constituents—to run for the senate. Given his resume-inflating gaffe, he’s now stuck for all time with a tarnish on his previously polished record. Of course, his answer was no regrets at all and the usual boilerplate—“No one is perfect and neither am I.” Still, there was something poignant about the man who did himself so much damage for so little reason.

At the debate’s close, the two men shook hands—at least distinguishing themselves from the contenders in the nasty senate contest in Kentucky. The Illinois duo meet for their final debate of this disheartening campaign at the studios of WTTW on Wednesday, October 27.

Chicago Tribune photos by Nuccio DiNuzzo