Durbin, Sauerberg clash on economy, Iraq during Knox College debate

Eric Timmons

When Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas held their historic debate at Knox College a century and a half ago, the pair had to clamber through a window to get to the podium, as Knox President Roger Taylor recounted Thursday.

Sen. Dick Durbin and Steve Sauerberg found it a lot easier to get to the podium when they debated at Knox Thursday night, 150 years and two days after the famous Lincoln-Douglas debate.

Incumbent Democratic Sen. Durbin and Republican challenger Sauerberg clashed on the economy and the war in Iraq as a crowd of about 50 Knox students looked on.

Sauerberg, a political neophyte, painted his rival as a liberal Washington insider. Durbin, seeking his third term in the Senate, countered that Sauerberg espoused exactly the sort of free-market fundamentalism that has crippled the economy.

In the hottest exchange of the debate, Sauerberg, accused Durbin of likening U.S. soldiers to Nazis, the administration to Pol Pot, and Guantanamo Bay to a Soviet gulag — claims that Sauerberg said had endangered U.S. troops in Iraq and emboldened the “enemy.”

Sauerberg staffers handed out news releases at the debate quoting a Durbin speech in the Senate in 2005, when he said in regard to the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo that U.S. troops actions had been like that of “Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime — Pol Pot or others — that had no concern for human beings.”

In Sauerberg’s view, which he claimed was shared by many he had met on the campaign trail, the statement had brought Durbin’s patriotism into question.

Durbin hit back by charging his opponent with bringing politics to a new low. “You are digging this hole so deep, I don’t know where the bottom is with you,” he said.

After the debate, Durbin's staffers said the senator had been endorsed by Veteran’s of Foreign Wars, and received an A+ from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veteran’s of America.

Durbin said that he would never accuse an opponent, no matter how much he disagreed with his stance, of being “unpatriotic,” a move that he said violated “common decency.”

On the economy, Sauerberg said he had opposed the financial bailout bill, for which Durbin voted. Durbin said legislators had faced a stark choice: do something or do nothing.

Sauerberg, however, said the choice had been to do something, do nothing, or do something right. He said he would have cut corporation and put a moratorium on capital gains taxes as a way out of the slump, but Durbin said most businesses had no profits left to tax.

Pressed on his health-care plan, which would offer a $5,000 tax credit to families to pay for insurance, Sauerberg stumbled when Durbin said the proposal was ineffectual, as the average family paid $12,000 for health care.

“It’s conceptual,” Sauerberg said of his proposal, after he said the numbers didn’t really matter.

After the debate, Sauerberg, who is a physician from Willowbrook, near Chicago, admitted it was difficult to compete with Durbin’s well-financed operation.

“I know that if we got 100 average Illinoisans in a room and told them what we stood for I would win, but that’s not how it works,” he said.

Durbin promised to keep signing earmarks, a process he defended, and played on his downstate roots as a reason why he should be re-elected.

The debate was moderated by radio journalists Melissa Hahn and Craig Dellimore.

Reach Register-Mail writer Eric Timmons at