Conservative congressman Mark Kirk gains on Democratic candidate for Obama’s Illinois Senate seat

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Congressman Mark Kirk’s identity crisis on tax-and-spend issues looks to be serving him well, since he just leaped ahead of his Democratic opponent in the race for Barack Obama’s former Illinois Senate seat.

Kirk splashed onto headlines last summer when he and seven other House Republicans voted for Nancy Pelosi’s cap-and-trade energy legislation. Kirk maintains that he’s a low-taxes guy, and instead shrugs, saying he represents the narrow interests of his constituents in north-suburban Chicago when he does vote with Democrats.

Kirk’s campaign reported raising an impressive $2.2 million since January, bringing his total for the 2010 cycle to $6.6 million and leaving him with $3 million in the bank.

At the same time, Public Policy Polling (PPP) showed him taking a four-point lead over his main opponent, Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, in a poll released on Tuesday. PPP had Kirk trailing by eight points as recently as January.

Kirk is trying to win over a state that was solidly in Obama’s column in 2008, and which hasn’t voted for a Republican president since George Bush Senior in 1988. A conservative’s only chance is to campaign as a moderate — something national Republicans are uneasy about.

Giannoulias has secured the Democratic nomination, but has faltered in the polls recently due to questionable practices at his family’s Broadway Bank, which is on the cusp of insolvency. It recently reported having loaned $20 million to convicted felons while Giannoulias was chief loan officer.

Democrats have officially stood by their man, but doubts may be creeping in.

“A lot of Democrats I know are unhappy about Alexi Giannoulis because he’s tainted with his family’s bank failure,” said James Merriner, an Illinois political consultant. “I know there is some pressure on him to get him to withdraw from the race — there are some very powerful Democrats who would be happy if he dropped out.”

Kirk fans may be troubled that he has not been able to garner support from Tea Party movements, although he made overtures to them in a letter to potential donors last month. He faces the possibility of a third-party independent complicating his chances for a statewide win.

“Kirk is not one of [Tea Partiers’] favorites, but then the only way a Republican can win statewide is to run as a moderate,” Merriner said.

Kirk supports stem-cell research, is pro-choice and favors gay-rights. He’s also part of the House’s renewable energy caucus. But he voted against Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill and health care, is a strong supporter of Israel and voted for the war in Iraq.

After the health-care bill passed, Kirk said he would lead the call for repeal, but may have thought better of how that message would play in his blue home state. He’s made little comment on the issue since.

While Kirk is battling Illinois Democrats, he’s also experienced strife in his own party. During last year’s primary, Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said he supported Kirk, but then retracted the statement because RNC rules allow for a public endorsement only after the primary election. The reversal made it look at though the Republican party had disowned Kirk. In the ensuing dust-up, Kirk found himself in Washington and stopped by RNC headquarters to confront Steele. “Kirk was furious,” said a former RNC staffer who was there that day. “The chairman was out of town, so Kirk expressed his displeasure to every staffer he saw.”

Republican strategists point out that the majority of the state votes Republican, despite a strong Democratic hold on the city of Chicago and its surrounding areas.

Urban upstate and rural downstate are wildly dissimilar, and while statewide politics are generally dominated by Cook County, the rest of the state could vote against the grain.

Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald held office for one term, from 1999-2005. The last Republican senator before him left office in 1985. Illinois has elected Republican governors from 1977 until Rod Blagojevich won in 2003.

But the real problem will be the economy. Illinois faced a $13 billion deficit this year, and the state’s trouble paying its bills will affect the elections. The unemployment rate isn’t as high as neighboring Michigan’s but is still higher than the national average at 12 percent.

E-mail Aleksandra.