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Illinois' first-term U.S. senator deserves a second term.

Six years ago, then-U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Republican from the Chicago suburbs, won what some considered an upset victory, defeating Democratic state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in a race for the U.S. Senate.

In 2016, now-Sen. Kirk is running uphill again, considered to be the underdog in his campaign for re-election against a strong Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth. Political handicappers have identified Kirk as the most vulnerable of Senate Republicans seeking re-election, mostly because Illinois is a solid Democratic state.

But Kirk has beaten long odds before. First, in his run for the U.S. House of Representative to succeed his boss, retiring U.S. Rep. John Porter, and later, in his 2000 Senate race, he demonstrated strong appeal to Democrats, Republicans and independents.

It's our hope he'll do so again this year. The News-Gazette is endorsing Kirk because of his solid academic background, vast experience, political independence and sound judgment. Duckworth offers a reasonable alternative to the Republican incumbent, but lacks the qualities that have made him an exemplary public official.

One area where both candidates excel equally and deserve a salute is in their outstanding personal character. Neither has allowed the physical limitations they must endure — Kirk suffered a serious stroke in 2012, Duckworth sustained major combat injuries during the Iraq war — to undermine their determination to remain active in public life. Both went through grueling rehabilitations, demonstrating a resolve that cannot fail to impress.

But this campaign is about political choices, and Kirk has shown strong leadership skills.

Whether he's discussing his reasons for opposing President Barack Obama's disastrous nuclear agreement with Iran, calling for infrastructure improvements to boost the economic prospects of business, labor and farmers, or urging the Senate to vote on Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, Kirk has never been reluctant to think for himself and show his cards.

That kind of independence wins enemies as well as friends. Kirk, no doubt, has angered many Republicans for refusing to support GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump on the grounds that Trump lacks the temperament to be president. (That hasn't stopped Duckworth from cynically trying to wrap the controversial Trump around Kirk's neck at every opportunity.)

There is no question, however, that Kirk is not the man he was before he suffered his 2012 stroke. Who would be in the face of that kind of health setback?

But doctors have indicated that, while Kirk remains partially paralyzed, his thinking is clear. Further, he has made tremendous strides in his rehabilitation and will make more in the future, even though his recovery will be limited.

Further, his penchant for making what qualify as unusually candid statements for a politician may well be stroke-related. The Duckworth campaign has tried to make an issue of Kirk's comments, suggesting they represent some defect in his character that makes him unworthy.

That stance by the Duckworth campaign proves two things:

— In politics, there is no mercy.

— Politicians just can't resist making mountains out of molehills if they believe they can gain a political benefit.

None of Kirk's remarks is scandalous in any way. If he wasn't a high-profile politician, few would think much about them. But faux outrage often is the order of the day in politics.

What really matters are Kirk's stances on the issues of the day. As a foreign-affairs expert, a liberal on social policy and a policy wonk who delves into the details of complicated issues, Kirk stands tall.

At the same time, Duckworth represents conventional liberalism, happily supporting the policy-of-the-day from the Obama administration and promising pretty much the same thing under a second President Clinton. There is nothing in her tenure as a member of Congress that has distinguished her as a deep thinker or leader on national issues.

That kind of lockstep myopia led to a knee-jerk endorsement of the Iran agreement. Duckworth's decision to support the Obama initiative looks worse every day in the face of continued hostility and aggressive action by the mullahs.

At the same time, she has been equally dogmatic in supporting the admission of 200,000 Syrian refugees into this country (her campaign says she really wants 100,000 Syrian refugees), even though the U.S. lacks the capacity to conduct proper background checks on the newcomers. America has always welcomed political refugees. But it's simply irresponsible to do that in a way that could pose a security threat. Duckworth appears to dismiss that real possibility without a second thought.

One could go on about the differences between the two. There are many. The biggest, however, is that Kirk has demonstrated his ability to function effectively in the Senate, both for Illinois and the nation. He's earned re-election.