ALTON, Ill. — Earlier this year, Starlet Travis voted Republican in the U.S. Senate race here.
But come November, she's casting her vote for a Democratic state senator, though she disagrees with the politician's stance on some social issues. After Travis watched Barack Obama speak at a fundraiser a few days ago, she rushed to meet him.
"You're the only person in this race that we trust," she told Obama as she gave him a photograph to sign. "You aren't talking like a crazy man."
With a tired smile and dark circles under his eyes, Obama hugged Travis and signed the photograph.
That scene is playing out across Illinois as this race makes history: It's the first time in a U.S. Senate race that the candidates from the two major parties are black. The fight to fill Republican Sen. Peter Fitzgerald's open seat will give the Senate its third black member since Reconstruction.
While no one says the race is close, it is nevertheless one of the highly watched political contests this season.
On one side is a Harvard-educated attorney and longtime Illinois resident who practiced civil rights law. Obama, whose father was from Kenya and mother was from Kansas, rose to national prominence after delivering a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention in July. Former NBA star Charles Barkley stopped by Obama's office this week to say hello, and Annie Leibowitz, the celebrity photographer, spent a day with the Obama family for Vanity Fair magazine.
In the last year, he has raised $14 million in campaign funds. He diverted $250,000 to support Democratic Party organizations in battleground states and helped raise $260,000 for Senate candidates in 13 states.
On the other side sits Alan Keyes, who earned a bachelor's degree and doctorate in government at Harvard. The former State Department official was an ambassador to the U.N. Economic and Social Council during the Reagan administration. A Maryland resident, he has previously criticized politicians such as Hillary Rodham Clinton for running for office outside their home states. Keyes, who also has worked as a cable TV talk show host, entered the race in August.
A poll conducted last week by the newspaper Pantagraph and WEEK-TV showed that Obama holds a 45-percentage-point lead over his GOP rival.
But Obama is not taking anything for granted.
"We've worked hard, we've had wonderful support from voters, and we have Alan Keyes," said Obama, 43, at a rally last weekend in Decatur, Ill. "I think the situation speaks for itself."
Illinois Republicans had found themselves without a candidate in August. Jack Ryan had dropped out after it was alleged in his divorce records that he had tried to force his wife to visit sex clubs. The state party approached two former Illinois governors, two state senators and former Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka. All declined to run against Obama.
The party then turned to Keyes, who said yes. He qualified for the ballot by renting an apartment in the working-class Chicago suburb of Calumet City.
Republican officials had hoped that Keyes' ethnicity, Harvard education and conservative views would be competitive against Obama. Keyes opposes abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action and gun control. Those views put him in stark contrast to Obama, who supports affirmative action, abortion rights and has voted in favor of background checks on all gun sales.
The candidates held their first debate Tuesday night on the radio, battling over subjects including the Iraq war and improving the economy. The two were a contrast in style.
Obama was calm and analytical, breaking down the problems and carefully choosing his words. "I have spoken of eliminating tax breaks that have been given to companies that send opportunities overseas," he said.
Keyes was the eloquent orator: "One of the problems we face is shrinking our manufacturing and industrial base," Keyes said. "If we had preserved those jobs, we wouldn't have these problems."
In recent weeks, Keyes' political strategy has been one of extreme sound bites and provocative quotes.
Keyes said that his rival wrongly "claims an African American heritage" because his mother was white. He has compared the state's political leaders to despots and described Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley as a "troll." He called homosexuals, including Vice President Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter, "selfish hedonists."
In fact, say political experts, Keyes himself -- and what he'll say next -- has become one of the race's leading issues.
"Keyes has alienated almost every constituency in this state," said Paul Green, a political scientist at Roosevelt University in Chicago.
Officials with the state Republican Party don't have much to say about Keyes and the Senate race. "We're focused on the presidential race right now," said Jason Gerwig, communications director for the state GOP.
Keyes has campaigned throughout the state. He is attracting crowds that range from a few dozen to a few hundred.