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Article updated: 8/28/2012 5:21 AM

Kirk 'politically smart' to stay home from convention, expert says

By Kerry Lester

TAMPA, Fla. -- U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk might be itching to get back to politics, but he is nowhere near the Republican National Convention in Tampa this week.

The senator, who suffered a serious stroke in January, has released videos of his rehabilitation sessions, visited with colleagues and worked on legislation in recent weeks.

Yet, staff members have urged the Highland Park Republican to cautiously re-enter the political world -- as every step he takes will shape public opinion about his effectiveness in Congress and his re-election bid in 2016.

That careful approach is politically smart, a suburban political analyst says, and local Republicans appear to fully support giving Kirk the time to make a full recovery.

In a Daily Herald survey of Illinois delegates to the GOP National Convention under way in Florida, a majority say they are "not at all concerned" with Kirk's absence from his duties.

The survey was sent to the state's 54 directly elected GOP delegates and 54 alternates, as well as the 12 delegates and 12 alternates who were chosen at the state party's convention in June.

Of the 56 responses, 55.4 percent said they were "not at all concerned" about Kirk's absence. Another 37.5 percent said they were somewhat concerned, and 7.1 percent said they were "very concerned."

Compared to other questions posed on the survey, the query about Kirk drew the most comments from respondents.

"It is unfortunate to see a serious physical illness has left him unable to perform to his fullest physical potential, but as long as he is mentally stable I see no reason why he should not represent us now and in the future," delegate Janie Grimes of downstate Iuka said.

Delegate Ian Brenson, of LaGrange, said he might have "some concern" if Kirk was absent from Washington for more than a year, and thus unable to cast votes.

However, Brenson said, "my understanding is that he is keeping up with a great deal of duties that do not require a physical presence."

Yet, Joseph Folisi of Schaumburg said he would like "some time frame" for Kirk's return.

Kirk suffered an ischemic stroke in January as he was preparing to travel from Highland Park to a Chicago event.

At Lake Forest Hospital, doctors discovered a carotid artery dissection in the right side of his neck, in which a flap of tissue blocked the flow of blood to the brain. They sent him by ambulance to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

A day later, surgeons temporarily removed a 4-by-8-inch portion of Kirk's skull to reduce the chance of damage caused by brain swelling. The bone segment was replaced in another operation several weeks later.

At the time of his stroke, doctors predicted Kirk would recover his full mental abilities. But the stroke on the right side of his brain affected his left arm and leg, his surgeon, Dr. Richard Fessler, warned at the time.

Kirk has faced his recovery privately, but it has been evident for months that he is preparing to return to political life.

In recent weeks, he has visited with Republican congressional hopeful Rodney Davis of Taylorville, Republican Congresswoman Judy Biggert of Hinsdale and Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski. He has released two Web videos detailing various stages of his recovery and showing him walking on a treadmill, climbing stairs with help and working on Senate business from his home.

Yet, Kirk's office has not prepared anything "of note" for presentation at the convention during the senator's absence from Tampa, his staff says.

That's probably a smart move, said Bruce Newman, a political marketing professor at DePaul University in Chicago.

"I really don't think he's in any position to take a risk at this point," Newman said. "I think he's playing it smart at this point, from a marketing standpoint."

Kirk, Newman said, "is reinforcing an image of himself as a potential leader, someone who can overcome a horrible tragedy. It's a win-win for him to wait."

In the meantime, Newman said, Kirk, as the Illinois GOP's highest ranking official, can still help the "team."

"He can put out endorsements. That's easy enough to do," Newman said.

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