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Article posted: 1/2/2013 5:30 AM

Experts: Stroke could make Kirk a tougher opponent in 2016

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U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk hasn't said whether he'll seek re-election in 2016, but experts say if he does, his recovery and return to Congress could make a campaign challenge by Democrats more difficult.

After all, this is not the time of Franklin Roosevelt or even John F. Kennedy, who hid medical conditions out of what was believed to be political necessity.

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While much can happen in the next four years, Democratic strategist Kitty Kurth says the stroke could strengthen Kirk's bid for a second term.

Kirk, a five-term suburban congressman, narrowly won his first statewide bid against Chicago Democrat Alexi Giannoulias in November 2010 in a bitter, costly race.

During the Senate campaign, Kirk weathered attacks that he flip-flopped on environmental legislation and exaggerated his military record. Kirk highlighted Giannoulias' failed family bank. Giannoulias called Kirk a serial liar.

But attacking Kirk personally now could be a dangerous maneuver.

In the Northwest suburban 8th Congressional District this past November, Republican Congressman Joe Walsh's personal criticisms of his opponent, Democrat Tammy Duckworth, a double-amputee Iraq War veteran, only backfired. Duckworth won the seat.

"As Walsh found out, every time he criticized Tammy Duckworth personally he lost support, and I would say that to any Democrat who eventually would run against Mark Kirk," Kurth said.

Against Kirk, "the challenge for any Democratic opponent is to really focus on the issues and the difference between what Democrats want to accomplish."

Kurth said Kirk's participation in activities like the Nov. 4 Willis Tower charity stair climb for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago focus positive attention on what otherwise "could be seen as a vulnerability."

No politician from either side of the aisle has criticized Kirk for missing months of time in the Senate as he recovered.

In a visit shortly after Kirk's stroke, former Congressman John Porter told his former chief of staff and 10th District successor that in some ways, he had been fortunate.

"I said, 'Mark, if you had to have this thing, your timing couldn't have been better.' There has been nothing of substance going on in the Senate. It's going to be all about the election this whole year."

Porter said he reminded Kirk that being only in the second year of his six-year Senate term, "gives you a good deal of time to recover and establish your ongoing relationship with the people of Illinois."

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