Maryland conservative Alan Keyes formally accepted Illinois' Republican U.S. Senate nomination Sunday, saying he believed he was duty-bound to protect the moral principles upon which the nation was founded and inviting voters to join him because "the victory is for God."
Ending more than six traumatic weeks for Republicans looking to replace embattled Jack Ryan in the Senate race against Democratic nominee Barack Obama, Keyes promised a fight--but not a victory--in a contest that he admitted would be "a great challenge" and "an uphill battle."
"If you are willing to join me in that fight, to join me with your money, to join me with your work, to join me especially with your prayers, I will promise you a battle like this nation has never seen," Keyes told several hundred supporters gathered in an Arlington Heights banquet hall.
Keyes' entry into the contest marks the first time in history that two African-Americans have challenged each other as major party nominees for election to the U.S. Senate. The winner will become only the third black elected to the chamber since Reconstruction and, with Carol Moseley Braun in 1992, the second African-American senator elected to represent Illinois in 12 years.
Keyes acknowledged that he had reservations about entering the race and that he had known little about Obama, a seven-year state senator from Chicago's Hyde Park neighborhood, except that he was a "standard liberal" who "looked like a pretty likable guy" in delivering the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention last month.
But in a half-hour nomination acceptance speech, Keyes said his decision to enter the contest was based on Obama's voting record in the state legislature--primarily a vote against what he termed "live-birth abortion" legislation. He branded Obama's posture on a variety of social issues as "abandoning the principles" that helped create the country and the principle that God endowed its citizens with fundamental rights.
A spokesman said Obama voted against the abortion legislation because it included provisions that "would have taken away from doctors their professional judgment when a fetus is viable." The legislation, which was defeated, would have made it illegal for doctors to let a fetus die if it happened to be delivered alive during an abortion.
Keyes, who ran twice unsuccessfully for the GOP presidential nomination and twice lost contests for the Senate from Maryland, made it clear that his strategy for his short campaign season would be to attack Obama's stands on a wide variety of issues. Keyes criticized Obama's support of abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, repeal of the federal tax cut on higher incomes and his opposition to the war in Iraq.
He said he would hold Obama to the pledge the Democrat had made for six debates when the Republican candidate was Ryan. Likening the potential of those forums to the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, he credited Obama as "somebody who wants to have a serious discussion" on the issues.
"We are of the mind and hope that people will see the possibility here of raising the banner of our beliefs in the context where the nation will be offered not just a clear choice, but a clear and articulate and even dramatic debate that will focus on the real substance of these differences," Keyes said.
In his address, Keyes sought to address head-on the issue of whether he was carpetbagging by running for a Senate seat in a state where he has never lived. He acknowledged he had criticized others in the past for "cherry-picking the states as platforms for their ambitions," but said the issues at stake in the contest were more important than geography.
"We must continue to assert and stand tall to defend the great principles of God's authority and unalienable rights on which this nation is founded," Keyes said. "If, indeed, that land is still Illinois, then I have lived in the Land of Lincoln all my life . . . and I will be proud to call Illinois my home."
Later, speaking to reporters, Keyes likened himself to the nation's 16th president. He said mid-19th Century voters in central Illinois looked at Lincoln "in terms of the character that he offered to his fellow citizens," rather than in terms of his Kentucky roots.
Keyes also said he did not know where he would set up residence in the state, which he must do by Election Day, because until about a week ago "the idea of coming to Illinois wasn't anywhere remotely near my mind at all, in any way."
Keyes was joined by a veritable who's who of Illinois conservatives, all of whom have long felt neglected by a state Republican Party controlled by social moderates. The announcement provided a reunion event for the "Fab Five," a group of five conservative Illinois state senators first elected in 1992. That group includes former Sen. Patrick O'Malley of Palos Park, Sen. Steve Rauschenberger (R-Elgin), Sen. Dave Syverson (R-Rockford) and Sen. Chris Lauzen (R-Aurora). The fifth member of the group is U.S. Sen. Peter Fitzgerald of Inverness, whose seat Keyes is seeking.
"I don't know that he will win, but I do know that the free ride for Barack Obama is over," Fitzgerald said. He said Keyes "will be a great spokesperson for core Republican principles and he will put up a fight."
Keyes, known for his fiery oratory, and other speakers sweated profusely in the hot, packed banquet hall. Supporters waved signs, including one pitching Keyes as "Keynote Speaker" for the upcoming Republican National Convention in New York and frequently interrupted him with applause and chanted along with him phrases from Lincoln's Gettysburg Address and the Declaration of Independence. At several points in the rally, the crowd chanted, "Alan, Alan, Alan," as people jingled their keys.
But within a Republican Party plagued by sharp ideological divisions, there were indications among some GOP leaders that their support of Keyes was tepid.
U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Plano, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," said Keyes' selection came after he personally had "been working for five weeks trying to find a candidate" without finding any takers. He said he was out of town when Republican leaders offered the nomination to Keyes.
State Sen. Kirk Dillard (R-Hinsdale), who also is the DuPage County Republican chairman, said Keyes' candidacy could help Republicans take races for the legislature, which Democrats now control.
But as Dillard assessed the fervor of Keyes' conservative support at the announcement speech, the DuPage GOP chairman expressed concerns for his party-building efforts in the suburbs.
"I'm trying to have women, moderate women, Hispanics and hold my base of Asian Americans," said Dillard, who briefly entertained the idea of seeking the nomination. "[Keyes] might not be the best candidate to do that."
State Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka, a moderate who chairs the state Republican Party and who has been criticized by conservatives for her handling of Ryan's departure from the ticket, was greeted with a mixture of cheers and boos as she pronounced, "Today the debate begins."
As Keyes entered the race, Obama was in Toronto visiting with family. His campaign used Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) as a surrogate who warned that Keyes was preparing to wage an "all-out attack" on Obama.
"The message of Alan Keyes is a message of division," Durbin said. "It's a message of good and evil. It's not a message of attacking issues. It's a message of attacking other politicians. I think Illinois is fed up with that."
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CAMPAIGN 2004: THE ISSUES
Illinois Senate race
Obama: Favors abortion rights.
Keyes: Would ban it except to save the mother's life.
Obama: Opposes a "regressive tax system" and advocates reducing the tax burden on people of lower- and middle-incomes through the expansion of earned income tax credits and other methods.
Keyes: A fiscal conservative who has likened income tax to slavery. Has said would eliminate the income tax, favoring a European-style national sales tax.
Obama: Favors the principle of affirmative action when it relates to access to education and the awarding of public contracts.
Keyes: Opposes affirmative action, having once called it a "government patronage program."
Obama: Backs civil unions for homosexuals, but has said that gay marriage is not politically practical."
Keyes: Says allowing gay marriage is "destroying the basis of our civilization."
Obama: Favors strengthening the assault-weapons ban include high-capacity clips made prior to 1994; holding parents criminally responsible for children who injure someone with a gun found in the home; placing trigger locks on guns; and allowing only one gun purchase per month.
Keyes: Supports the individual right to gun ownership, generally opposes federal legislation restricting it. Once said the right to gun ownership is essential to duty of citizens to resist and overthrow the power responsible if rights are systematically violated.
Obama: Favors an overhaul of the No Child Left Behind law. Favors increasing funding for after-school programs, vocational education and early childhood education such as Head Start.
Keyes: In 2000 presidential campaign, said U.S. Education Department should be eliminated, parents given control of their share of federal education dollars.
Obama: Was an early, outspoken critic of the war. However, he now believes that U.S. forces must remain in Iraq until the country is stabilized.
Keyes: Has raised questions about Bush pre-emptive war doctrine, but now "stands foursquare behind the president," according to a spokesman.
Source: Tribune and wire reports