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Keyes Steps Into Illinois Senate Race

The GOP conservative, a resident of Maryland, says he faces 'an uphill battle' in taking on state Sen. Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat.

August 09, 2004|P.J. Huffstutter | Times Staff Writer

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. — Alan Keyes, a two-time presidential candidate who lives in Maryland, announced Sunday that he would accept the Illinois Republican Party's nomination and run for the U.S. Senate.

With less than three months before the election, Keyes acknowledged it would be difficult to beat Barack Obama, 43, the state senator whose speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston gained him national prominence. This is the first U.S. Senate race in history where both candidates from the two major parties are African American, assuring that the Senate will seat its fifth black member ever.

"We do face an uphill battle, there's no doubt," said Keyes, 54, who promotes a Christian philosophy. He accepted the nomination Sunday at a rally in this Chicago suburb.

The battle to fill the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald would be difficult, said Keyes, who has never won a federal election. If he wins, "the victory is for God," he said.

Critics in the state Democratic Party dismiss Keyes as an opportunist, and described the GOP selection as "sad."

"Twelve and a half million people in our state, and the Illinois Republican Party was unable to come up with one person to run for the United States Senate," said Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.). "Their selection process made it very clear that when it comes to the future of the Republican Party, moderates need not apply."

Keyes, a former government official and radio and cable TV talk-show host, previously had criticized politicians such as Hillary Rodham Clinton for running for office outside their home state.

Illinois Republicans say Keyes' race, education and conservative views are a compelling combination. Keyes opposes abortion and gay marriage, affirmative action and gun control. He has called for eradicating the income tax, and instituting a national sales tax instead.

Republicans say these views put him in stark contrast to Obama, who supports affirmative action and abortion rights and has voted in favor of background checks on all gun sales. He's pro-labor, and has proposed offering tax incentives for firms that create high-paying jobs in the U.S.

Obama "has never seen a spending bill he couldn't find some excuse for and has never seen a tax increase he didn't like," Keyes said.

Obama, upon hearing the criticisms, called on his rival to run a positive race. In a statement issued Sunday, Obama said, "As Mr. Keyes begins to travel the state, he will see that families here are concerned about quality jobs, making healthcare more affordable and ensuring our children get the best education possible. And Illinoisans want a Senate candidate who will attack the problems they and their families face rather than spending time attacking each other."

Keyes' acceptance of the nomination is the latest chapter in one of the oddest political contests in Illinois history, which has unleashed nasty debates over morals and messy divorces.

In June, Republican Senate candidate Jack Ryan withdrew after divorce records detailed allegations that he took his former wife to sex clubs and tried to get her to engage in sex acts in front of strangers.

Since then, two former Illinois governors, two state senators, several wealthy businessmen and former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka have declined the state Republican Party's offer to run against Obama, who had been leading in the polls before Ryan's troubles began.

Desperate to find someone to compete against Harvard-educated Obama, the Republicans "needed to find another Harvard-educated African American who had some experience on the national political scene," said Republican state Sen. Steven J. Rauschenberger. "We need that because the Democrats have made an icon out of Barack Obama. The only way to fight back is to find your own icon, and that is not an easy thing to do."

About a week ago, members of the state Republican Party began mentioning Keyes as an option. A State Department official and ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council during the Reagan administration, he made runs for president in 1996 and 2000. He also lost twice running for the U.S. Senate in Maryland: In 1988, he got 38% of the vote; in 1992, he got 29%.

In 1992, Keyes was criticized for using campaign funds to pay himself a monthly salary of $8,500 -- an unusual, though legal, strategy at the time.

Illinois GOP officials said that Keyes had assured them he wouldn't do that during this campaign.

Keyes' core support comes from the religious community, as well as conservative groups that agree with his view on the decline of American morality, campaign officials said. They noted that his donor base consisted of more than 40,000 people.

Raising funds, particularly in such a short period of time, is another disadvantage that Keyes faces. Obama has raised more than $10 million.

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