Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk played defense during the final debate Friday night, starting with an apology for previously disparaging Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth's family heritage and military history and later declaring "I am not a racist."
The two-term congresswoman from Hoffman Estates noted she accepted Kirk's apology but criticized him over past controversial comments and for failing to answer whether he would fight proposals from Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to build a wall on the Mexico border and push for mass deportations of immigrants in the U.S. without permission.
The final debate, at the Loop studios of WLS-TV Ch.-7 and co-sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Illinois and Univision, was wide-ranging but odd at times.
Given a chance to ask Duckworth a question, Kirk offered to buy the Democrat a beer at the Billy Goat Tavern the day after the election, as he did with his defeated foe in 2010, "to show Illinois families that we can bury the hatchet and that democracy is the best thing, is the way to go forward."
Duckworth laughed and said she was allergic to alcohol. "So if you'll let me have a Diet Coke I'll certainly be willing to meet with you there," she said.
Kirk is widely viewed as the most vulnerable Republican seeking re-election nationally, particularly due to Illinois' tradition of voting deeply Democratic in presidential election years.
Little more than a week ago, during their second debate, Kirk displayed a more aggressive approach in engaging Duckworth than he had during the pair's first forum in early October before the Chicago Tribune Editorial Board.
It was during that second debate that Duckworth chronicled her family's history of military service on her father's side dating to the American Revolution. Kirk replied: "I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington."
Less than 24 hours later, Kirk apologized to Duckworth, who was born in Bangkok to a mother of Chinese heritage and a military veteran father of British descent.
To open Friday's debate, Kirk again offered an apology to Duckworth, who lost her legs after an explosive grenade was launched into her U.S. Army helicopter during the Iraq War.
"I would like to take this moment to thank Tammy for accepting my apology when I disparaged her family's admirable military record. I think that having lost two legs in the Iraq War you are to be honored and the way we repay that is by honoring your service, especially that of you and your family," Kirk said.
Duckworth interjected, "Thank you."
Later, Kirk was asked to respond to critics who said his comment carried racist overtones.
"I am not a racist," said Kirk, who went on to explain his support for an African-American entrepreneurship program at Chicago State University on the Far South Side. "I am absolutely not a racist."
Asked why he would make such a remark, Kirk said: "I wasn't thinking. That was a mistake on my part."
Duckworth suggested the debate should move on to other issues, but then launched into a litany of Kirk's controversial statements, including likening President Barack Obama to "drug dealer in chief" over U.S. payments linked to the Iran nuclear deal and referring to the home-state president as "Barack Hussein Obama," which she called "a dog whistle to disparage" Obama.
"That is not acceptable language coming from a United States senator," Duckworth said. "Let's talk about the issues, though."
Kirk responded by saying sometimes "that I've been too quick to turn a phrase, that some of those things I've already apologized for because once it comes out you realize it was inappropriate in such a heated environment we're in, in a top Senate race."
Asked about his health after suffering a massive stroke in 2012 that kept him out of the Senate for almost a year, Kirk said he released a letter from his doctor "that said that from my stroke, I had made a full mental recovery." The letter from Kirk's treating physician said the senator had made a "full cognitive recovery."
Duckworth questioned why Kirk had not made available a full-scale release of medical records. "I take him at his word. He says he's fully capable of doing the job. My problem is, he's not doing the job," she said.
Duckworth criticized Kirk for saying the effort to help build community police relations was beyond the scope of his office. She vowed to push for laws to combat gun violence, help the economy of impoverished communities and back criminal justice reforms such as ending mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.
Kirk said he has backed efforts to help ban gun trafficking for criminal organizations such as gangs and to stop the influx of straw purchases of guns from out of state that are brought into Chicago. "We cannot build a 21st century economy here if we're going to be the headquarters of Murder Inc.," he said.
Kirk questioned Duckworth's tenure as director of the state Department of Veterans' Affairs and the controversy over a workplace discrimination lawsuit, saying that while she was a "war hero," her time as an administrator had "fallen flat."
Kirk also criticized Duckworth over wanting to allow 100,000 Syrian refugees into the country — well beyond what Obama has suggested. Duckworth said she supports a "thorough background check" conducted by the FBI, CIA, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department. "We are a nation of free people who welcomes immigrants and we should be true to that."
On the topic of the Supreme Court, Kirk struggled to explain his relationship with Republican leadership in the Senate, which has refused to consider Merrick Garland, Obama's most recent nominee to the court.
Kirk said he has urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to hold a confirmation hearing, and he sought to distance himself from the Kentucky conservative, pointing out that unlike McConnell, he supports abortion rights and tighter controls on guns.
"In my case, Mitch McConnell is pro-life and anti-gun control. So I disagree with him. You know, you disagree without being disagreeable," Kirk said.
"I think that he just made my case that he has the meetings but he actually does not take any real leadership role," Duckworth said.