CARBONDALE -- Alexi Giannoulias focused his attacks on two people in a Democratic Senate debate Tuesday night, and one of them wasn't even on the stage.
Giannoulias repeatedly criticized rival Democrat David Hoffman and ignored the other candidates. He argued that electing Hoffman would be little different from electing the likely Republican nominee, Mark Kirk.
Both Hoffman and Kirk, he said, would back Bush administration policies of cutting taxes for the wealthy and promoting trade policies that ship American jobs overseas, Giannoulias charged.
"I disagree with Mr. Hoffman and Mr. Kirk," Giannoulias, the state treasurer, said during the debate at Southern Illinois University. "It's time for us to stand up and fight for working families here in Illinois."
Hoffman called the accusations "disingenuous" and "absurd."
Giannoulias based his charges on two of Hoffman's positions: that it would be a mistake to end Bush-era tax cuts during a recession and that he favors free trade.
Hoffman countered that not wanting to raise taxes while the economy is unstable doesn't mean he wants to soak middle-class families while sparing the rich. He also argued that it's possible to support free trade while also backing measures to ensure American workers go up against foreign workers on a level playing field.
"What I've said is that I'm for free trade that is fair," said Hoffman, the former inspector general for the city of Chicago.
Hoffman jabbed back by targeting Giannoulias' experience.
In a section of the debate where the candidates could question one another, Hoffman asked why voters worried about jobs, terrorism and other urgent issues should elect someone who is just 33 years old and has basically held only two jobs -- a position in his family bank and three years as state treasurer.
"Isn't it fair for voters to be concerned?" Hoffman asked.
Giannoulias responded that the election isn't about the candidates' date of birth. "It's about the depth of their knowledge, the depth of experience and how hard they've fought for the people of the state of Illinois," he said.
Neither candidate spent much energy criticizing the other two Democrats in the debate, Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson and attorney Jacob Meister.
Jackson repeatedly emphasized helping struggling families, aiding small business and improving schools. She said Democrats need a nominee who will emphasize those issues instead of debating Kirk, a congressman and member of the Navy Reserves, on experience or foreign policy.
"You can't out-Kirk Mark Kirk," Jackson said. "This is where I'm strongest -- on the issues where he's weakest."
Meister emphasized his political independence, arguing that he has no ties to Chicago Mayor Richard Daley or former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. He also criticized Hoffman, questioning his commitment to Democratic ideals because Hoffman was a law clerk for conservative Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist and whether Hoffman's experience as a federal prosecutor qualifies him for the Senate.