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Giannoulias has earned a seat in the U.S. Senate

In sizing up the two major-party candidates for the U.S. Senate in next month's election, we find ourselves returning to the most fundamental of questions:

Who is this man- Where does he stand- What would he do-

We think we can answer those questions, within a comfortable margin of error, with respect to one candidate. But not at all with respect to the other.

We endorse Democrat Alexi Giannoulias for the Senate, impressed by his character, his achievements as state treasurer and his obvious great potential. With a triumvirate of Giannoulias, Sen. Dick Durbin -- the Democratic Senate whip -- and President Obama, every squeak and chirp in Illinois would be loudly heard in Washington.

We're throwing in with Giannoulias, though, with a touch of frustration, knowing that his Republican opponent, Rep. Mark Kirk, is the candidate with the longer resume, the candidate we have endorsed many times before. But in the past few years, Kirk has become more of a mystery to us, not less, exaggerating his resume, flip-flopping on some issues and refusing to take a stand on others for fear of offending any segment of voters.

We will never understand in particular why Kirk felt the need to falsely puff up his already impressive military record.

We no longer know who Kirk is, where he stands or what he would do.

Giannoulias, a son of Greek immigrants who earned a law degree from Tulane and briefly played professional basketball in Greece, takes an entirely more straightforward approach. He is direct where Kirk dodges, takes a stand where Kirk heads for the hills. He is smart, but not a smarty pants.

Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones and Libertarian Mike Labno also are running.

In the Senate, Giannoulias would be a progressive Democrat, strong on supporting small businesses, investing in clean energy and pushing ethics reform.

Giannoulias' extraordinary interpersonal skills have served him and Illinois well in the treasurer's office, where he has built a loyal and dedicated staff. In the Senate race, Giannoulias has shown the same deft people skills, putting together a well-organized and disciplined campaign. We have no doubt he would assemble an equally excellent staff as senator.

The treasurer's office has limited responsibilities, but Giannoulias has found new ways to save the state money and be of compassionate service to ordinary people. He has promoted programs that help small business owners gain access to capital and built up his office's Bright Start college savings program to be one of the best in the nation, notwithstanding major losses in one crucial fund.

Giannoulias really shined, though, when he saved the jobs of 600 people by forcing a bank, Wells Fargo, to back off a plan to liquidate Hartmarx, a men's clothing company in Des Plaines. By threatening to withdraw $25 billion in state deposits, Giannoulias pressured the bank to find a purchaser for Hartmarx, which it did.

The Kirk campaign tries to tie Giannoulias as closely as possible to the failure of his family's Broadway Bank, but our own reading of that sad story is that Giannoulias probably had little to do with the bank's failure -- or its earlier success.

What does seem clear is that the experience of working for a community bank influenced Giannoulias' views on Wells Fargo's responsibilities to Hartmarx, a small company just trying to survive.

"I know what it's like to lose a family business," he told the Sun-Times editorial board. "It breaks your heart."

Giannoulias is young, just 34, but seasoned in life and politics.

He's got the stuff to be an excellent United States senator.