EAST PEORIA -- Senate candidate Mark Kirk focused on national security and foreign trade Monday, delivering a speech that called for a greater diplomatic presence in China and more pressure on the country to fight theft of intellectual property.
"Asia now is more important than Europe to our economic and security future," Kirk told employees of heavy-equipment manufacturer Caterpillar Inc., according to the text of his speech. "Millions of Americans would be unemployed but for customers in Asia."
Kirk offered few specifics on how to pressure China on intellectual property, human rights or its relationships with Iraq and North Korea. Speaking to reporters after the speech, which was closed to the public, the Republican praised Democratic President Barack Obama's handling of Asian affairs.
The emphasis on foreign trade allowed Kirk to note his experience as a member of Congress and intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve, while still keeping the campaign focused on jobs -- by all accounts, the top issue to most voters.
Democratic candidate Alexi Giannoulias lacks Kirk's foreign policy credentials, but he didn't back down Monday. Giannoulias, a former banker and one-term state treasurer, noted that Kirk voted for invading Iraq but against a troop surge in 2007.
"Experience matters, but judgment matters more," Giannoulias said. "On two of the biggest decisions of the last quarter-century, he got it wrong."
The Giannoulias campaign also accused Kirk of voting for tax policies that encourage businesses to ship American jobs overseas. Their most recent example was his vote against providing new money for teachers by ending a tax loophole used by multinational corporations.
Giannoulias and Kirk are battling for the Senate seat Obama held before being elected president.
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Kirk picked up the endorsement of Caterpillar chairman Jim Owens, while Giannoulias announced the backing of Wesley Clark, NATO's former supreme commander and a 2004 Democratic candidate for president.
After introducing Clark and listing his numerous awards -- including the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Purple Heart -- Giannoulias took a jab at his opponent.
"Unlike Congressman Kirk, he actually won these awards," Giannoulias said, referring to Kirk's exaggerations and embellishments of his military record.
Giannoulias and Clark appeared at a Chicago charging station for electric cars to promote clean energy as a boon to both the environment and the economy. It also gave them an opportunity to criticize Kirk for flip-flopping on "cap and trade" environmental legislation -- first voting for it in the U.S House and now campaigning against it as a Senate candidate.
Kirk's speech emphasized his knowledge of China. He called for the United State to open more diplomatic consulates across China and to increase study of Chinese culture and language in American schools.
He also called for the United States to work with China on developing anti-pollution technology.
Kirk faced some complaints last year after saying that, in a meeting with Chinese leaders, he had told them not to believe the official size of the U.S. budget. Critics said it was inappropriate for a House member to tell foreign leaders not to trust the U.S. government.
-- Associated Press Writer Sophia Tareen contributed to this report from Chicago.