, CHICAGO, Oct 7 – President Barack Obama flies to Chicago on Thursday in a bid to keep his old Senate seat from falling into the hands of Republicans in what has become an ugly and bitterly-contested race.
The seat should have been an easy win for Democrats, who have only lost one US Senate race in Illinois in the past four decades.
But a series of scandals have undermined Democrats in the midwestern state, as has voter frustration embroiling the nation as a result of the deepest economic crisis a generation.
Losing the seat Obama vacated in 2008 "would certainly be a big symbolic defeat," said John Brehm, a political science professor at the University of Chicago.
And Democrats can ill afford to lose any more seats in the Senate, especially given that Republicans could regain control of the House of Representatives in the November 2 midterm elections.
Obama will appear at a Thursday evening fundraiser for one-time protege and basketball buddy Alexi Giannoulias, a first-term state treasurer whose campaign has taken a major hit from the failure of his family\’s bank.
Giannoulias worked as a senior loan officer at Broadway Bank when a series of questionable loans were made, including to mobsters and top Democratic fundraiser Tony Rezko, who was later convicted of influence peddling.
He is currently polling in a statistical dead-heat with US Representative Mark Kirk, who has seen his numbers fall after admitting in June that he embellished his military record on several occasions.
The state\’s airwaves have been flooded with negative ads in one of the ugliest races in the country.
Ginannoulias slammed Kirk as a "liar" and Washington insider who is "unfit" for office and helped George W. Bush send jobs overseas and "wreck the economy."
Kirk accused his rival of lying about his involvement in loans to mobsters and misleading families after a state-run college savings fund lost money in the 2008 crash.
The nastiest ads have come from third-party groups, like one produced by a group led by former president George W. Bush\’s political guru Karl Rove with an animation of Giannoulias falling asleep at the wheel of a crashing SUV.
Republicans are also hoping to tar Giannoulias for his association with former Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich, who was ousted from office after being arrested on a slew of corruption charges.
Blagojevich, who was accused trying to auction Obama\’s seat off to the highest bidder, was found guilty of lying to federal agents in August but faces a retrial after jurors deadlocked on the corruption charges.
Roland Burris, whom Blagojevich appointed to the seat after the scandal broke, is not running for re-election.
Giannoulias has nonetheless done a better job of improving his trust and favourability ratings in recent weeks, according to a recent Chicago Tribune poll that also found 17 percent of Illinois voters remained undecided.
He is also banking on getting a big boost from Obama\’s support.
Thursday\’s fundraiser will not get the same kind of media play as a massive rally Obama held in Wisconsin last week where Democratic Senator Russ Feingold is struggling to hang onto his seat.
But it will certainly help Giannoulias pay for more ads, like the one he began airing this week using a clip from an August fundraiser where Obama delivered a solid endorsement.
"Alexi is my friend, I know his character. You can trust him, you can count on him," Obama said in the ad that opens with the two men hugging.
"On his first day in office Alexi enacted sweeping ethics reform… he\’s proven himself as someone who\’s not afraid to stand up to special interests."
First Lady Michelle Obama is also expected to drum up support for Giannoulias at a Chicago fundraiser next week.