Why does Mark Kirk love charts so much?

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The two candidates duking out a personal battle for Obama’s old Senate seat — Democratic State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias and five-term Republican Congressman Mark Kirk — took their beefs to the set of Meet the Press this morning.

Sitting in the D.C. studio, the two candidates spoke nary a word before the segment and twiddled their thumbs. A montage played as they waited, two men who have lobbed plenty of unkind words at each other from a distance suddenly sitting a few inches apart. On the video, a woman summed up the race thus: Illinois voters have a choice between a serial embellisher (Kirk) and a mob banker (Giannoulias). And though the first half of the debate was devoted to policy, it was arguments over those epithets that were at the heart of the match-up.

They started by speaking about Obama’s legacy. Giannoulias said that we should give the guy a break given what a nasty hand he had coming into office. Kirk lifted up a GDP-to-debt ratio chart he had brought, for just such an occasion, to show that while, sure, things were bad when Bush left, Obama had only made the economy worse.

The talking points were pretty standard Republican and Democrat stances. Kirk said the stimulus had failed. Giannoulias said he’d support more stimulus. Both championed the needs of small businesses, either in terms of access to capital or getting stimulus-provided tax cuts. Both invoked the fear of China — and, in Kirk’s case, the fear that we’re heading toward a European style of government — that Joe Klein highlighted in his recent cover story on the feelings of the American electorate. And both suggested that whatever the other guy wanted to do would surely make us a lap dog to the Far East.

Host David Gregory spent more time on Kirk during this half, targeting him for backing tax cuts that can’t be paid for and forcing him to answer for all Republicans but also giving him more time to lay out his policies, to explain why he wants to repeal health care legislation and replace it with his own bill. (The big problem being that Kirk would have to decimate the good provisions that Giannoulias highlighted, like allowing kids to stay on their parents policies until they’re 26, in order to wipe the slate clean and replace it with his more limited-scope plan.)

Then came the second half everyone was waiting for. In the post-debate analysis, our own Joe Klein and the Wall Street Journal‘s Peggy Noonan both lamented how this race is so concentrated on accusations about personal character when people are so full of anxiety about problems that are unrelated to Kirk’s exaggerated claims about his military service and Giannoulias’ bank ties to “the mob.” But even if that’s not what people care about, it’s what they like to read about, and, of course, it made for the best television of the day.

The two candidates took the two different roads a politician can when faced with scandal. When asked about his family’s bank lending to known members of the mafia, Giannoulias hedged his response by saying they didn’t know the “extent” of the criminal activity, hinting at the idea that it’s not a financial institution’s job to decide who’s the next John Gotti (as a financial journalist on set put it). Kirk owned up to his misrepresentations of awards and whether he was under fire while serving tours abroad. He said it was careless but never answered Gregory’s pressing about how someone gets so careless about those sorts of details. Kirk said, unsatisfyingly, that it was “confusing.” (He also brought another visual aid to show the highlighted names of questionable persons Giannoulias had lent money too, while the latter had to defend himself with slappers only. In a scrum after the debate, one reporter asked what had to be the most hilariously vapid question of the day: Why does Kirk love charts so much? Giannoulias declined to speculate.)

After the debate ended with no clear winner, a Giannoulias aide tole TIME that Kirk is stuck. He can’t run against Washington because he’s long been established there, he said. He can’t run against Obama because no matter what the polls look like, he’ll still be Illinois’ boy. And he can’t run on personal attacks because of his own gaffes. But the latter point doesn’t hold up. Of course he can, and the two will continue to trade those hits for these final days before the election.

A commercial played during one of the breaks wherein a man shoveling in a hole symbolizes America shoveling itself into debt and the voiceover says, “If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.” And it seemed a funny reminder that stopping is exactly what these guys can’t — or at least won’t — do, no matter what shape the race takes. They can only shovel in another direction.