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Kirk ‘Not Really’ at Convention

Targeted Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) parachuted into the Twin Cities earlier this week, hosting a Monday discussion on energy issues before catching the first ride out of town later that day in what could be a political blessing from Mother Nature.

In an interview with Roll Call, Kirk disputed the notion that there were political risks for him showing up in St. Paul during such an inhospitable year for Republicans. He said that voters in his wealthy North Shore Chicago district expect him to take the lead on major policy matters.

“My plans changed because of [Hurricane] Gustav,” Kirk said Monday. “I was going to stay [at the convention] an extra two days, but at this point we’re scheduled to have relief supplies loaded back home, so I’m going home … to do that.”

But how politically dangerous was even a brief convention appearance by Kirk? The lawmaker’s opponent, marketing consultant Dan Seals (D), likely will win or lose based on how many Land of Lincoln voters come out for Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) in the presidential election and how successfully Seals can tie Kirk to an unpopular President Bush, who twice lost the district.

On Tuesday, Seals’ campaign attempted to make political hay out of Kirk’s brief appearance Monday at the energy forum, which took place at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in St. Paul.

“Mark Kirk’s decision to attend the Republican Convention in Minneapolis just shows where his true priorities are: defending the failed policies of the Bush Administration and supporting John McCain’s bid for George Bush’s third term,” Seals’ communications director, Elisabeth Smith, said in a statement. “After seven years of voting in lockstep with the Bush administration, Mark Kirk continues to fight for more of the same failed policies that led us into the war in Iraq, weakened our economy, and left us with little hope for health care.”

Kirk, a policy wonk, has been urging his House GOP colleagues to embrace an agenda that appeals to suburban voters, a key voting bloc that the Republicans risk forfeiting. He said his appearance at the energy forum was merely an extension of his desire to discuss issues that affect voters’ everyday lives.

But former Rep. Charles Bass (R-N.H.), whose Democratic challenger, now-Rep. Paul Hodes (N.H.), successfully linked him to Bush two years ago, says the risks for Kirk for attending the convention are few, but real. The former six-term Member, who wouldn’t rule out another run for federal office someday, said he avoided conventions while serving in Congress, but he called Kirk’s decision a “calculated move.”

“Mark Kirk first and foremost is trying to be the most issue-oriented Member of Congress,” Bass said this week. “He came last night and is leaving tomorrow — that’s OK. Mark Kirk is at the convention, but not really.”

A Republican political consultant from Illinois said there is a difference this year between Democrats avoiding their national convention in Denver and Republicans avoiding St. Paul, where fears of Hurricane Katrina-like devastation early in the week forced some delegations to scale back their late-night extracurricular activities.

“This isn’t like Denver, this certainly is not a party,” the consultant said. “It’s more subdued.”

But even more, the source said, “I don’t think [Kirk] gives a s–t” about what anyone thinks of him.

Bass said he sees similarities between Kirk’s current race and his own 2006 ouster by Hodes. Kirk is facing Seals a second time, and Hodes defeated Bass in their rematch. Bass said that helplessness can set in, “a feeling that your destiny in not in your own hands.”

“He has things working against him — obviously his home state of Illinois and Barack Obama … the fact that his district is a very moderate district, very, one would argue, anti-Bush,” Bass said. “There are big issues — the war in Iraq, energy prices, the favorability rating of President Bush — these are all things that a single Member of Congress can’t influence.”

“For me, I couldn’t help the [former Florida Republican Rep.] Mark Foley affair, I couldn’t help the ‘Bridge to Nowhere,’” Bass continued. “I couldn’t help [former GOP Reps.] Bob Ney [Ohio], Duke Cunningham [Calif.] and all those scandals … I couldn’t do anything about it.”

But unlike his 2006 race, Bass said Kirk “has a more favorable environment” this cycle and that the Republican presidential ticket “doesn’t do him any harm at all” in a district where one-third of voters are self-described independents. Still, the former lawmaker said Kirk “has a very tough 60 days ahead of him,” particularly because the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has so much money in the bank.

As of Aug. 1, the DCCC had more than $56 million in cash, while the National Republican Congressional Committee had about $14 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

As of July 1, Kirk had $2.86 million on hand and Seals had $1.18 million.

“The problem is Democrats have so much money it’s going to be difficult for the Republican message to be heard,” Bass said. “He rides on the McCain ticket and on the Mark Kirk franchise.”