As Democrats nationwide shun campaign help from the White House, Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias plans to buck the trend and stand boldly with President Obama during a presidential stop this week in Illinois.
Despite the president's waning popularity, Mr. Giannoulias has hitched his campaign to Mr. Obama, running television advertisements touting his close relationship with the former senator from the Land of Lincoln.
Such a move would be politically risky in many states where "tea party" fervor and anti-Obama sentiment runs high. But the president still holds some cachet in his home state, which Mr. Giannoulias hopes will help push him ahead in a surprisingly close race with Republican Rep. Mark Steven Kirk.
"Giannoulias is hanging around because it's a Democratic state and the president is still more popular in Illinois than anywhere else, and because Kirk just shot himself in the foot," said Kent Redfield, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Springfield, referring to the heat taken by Mr. Kirk for previously overstating his military record.
Mr. Giannoulias' campaign has been plagued by missteps, questions about his leadership as state treasurer and lingering concerns about his role in a failed family business.
Yet most pollsters and political experts, while giving a slight edge to Mr. Kirk, say the race is too close to call. Highlighting the race's uncertainty was the release of two polls Wednesday each showing a different candidate with a narrow lead.
"Both candidates are struggling a little, but I think it's just one of those margin of error, really, really close races," said Jennifer E. Duffy, who covers Senate races for the Cook Political Report. "It's probably a 1 or 2 point race in either direction."
The notion that Mr. Giannoulias is even close in the polls this late in the race is considered a major achievement by many political experts.
The dapper young Democrat, at 34, has far less political experience than his Republican opponent, who has served in the U.S. House for almost a decade. And his tenure as Illinois treasurer, a post he had held since 2007, has coincided with a deep state recession. Money shortfalls with the state's Bright Start college-saving problem also hurt his reputation as a financial expert.
"It's hard for him to point to a record of achievement, and frankly he's relatively young and doesn't have that much behind him, other than his record as treasurer," said Brian Gaines, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
"I could have thought of a half-dozen reasons why [Mr. Giannoulias would] be out of this race, so I have to say he's campaigning better than I thought he would."
Mr. Giannoulias also has been dogged by accusations that he mismanaged his family's bank, which was forced to close this year after failing to raise enough capital.
Fresh accusations surfaced last week that Mr. Giannoulias qualified for a huge tax deduction by telling the Internal Revenue Service he worked 500 hours at the bank in early 2006, contradicting previous comments that he was largely gone from the bank by then. Such deductions are allowed to reflect business losses associated with a family corporation if a significant amount of work time has been spent at the business.
The $2.7 million deduction reduced his income to the point that he paid no federal income taxes last year, the Associated Press reported.
Mr. Giannoulias told the Chicago Tribune he merely was wrapping up old responsibilities, which required about 30 hours a week.
Republicans also have accused Mr. Giannoulias of being a "mob banker" amid reports his bank lent money in 2006 to development company partially owned by Antoin "Tony" Rezko, who was then tied up in a corruption probe that ultimately led to his conviction.
The Chicago Tribune also has reported the bank had lent money to convicted felons Michael "Jaws" Giorango and Demitri Stavropoulos.
The bank situation "reinforces questions about Giannoulias in terms of whether he's up for the job, because the resume is pretty thin," said Mr. Redfield. "It just tarnished the narrative of the up-and-coming whiz kid."
But Mr. Kirk, 51, has had his own problems. An intelligence officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves, he admitted earlier this year to embellishing his military record, a misstep easily exploited by the Giannoulias campaign.
The moderate Republican largely has avoided serious campaign snafus since, though he hasn't instilled significant enthusiasm among voters either, political experts say.
"There's a lot of dissatisfaction with both candidates," Mr. Redfield said. "Neither one has a large group of people who would run through walls for them."
Yet Mr. Kirk, who has represented a suburban Chicago district since 2001, holds several advantages.
He successfully has won several elections in a moderate to left-of-center district and has significant name recognition in the state's major population center. He holds a sizable fundraising edge. Many voters also perceive Mr. Kirk as more mature and qualified than his young opponent.
And despite the president's relative popularity in his home state, Mr. Kirk has tapped into many voters' disillusionment with the administration and the Democratic Party.
"Kirk seems more in control of the race and of his message, whereas Giannoulias does have to sort of deal with all of these issues that do come up," Ms. Duffy said. "Even in [pro-Obama] Illinois, it's not a really good environment for him to run on."
Mr. Redfield said Mr. Kirk probably has established a slight and solid - though not insurmountable - edge over Mr. Giannoulias.
"The advantage has been Kirk's from the beginning, and I think it still is," he said. "But you can't [write Giannoulias off]. He still has a shot."
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