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."
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.