Election 2004  
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Keyes No Laughing Matter

Keyes' Illinois run is the earnest comeback of a hard-line conservative – Dems should take that seriously.
 
 
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The jokes, guffaws, and wisecracks came fast and furious the instant that Illinois Republicans hinted that they would nominate out of state Republican pitchman Alan Keyes to run against black Illinois state legislator, and the Democrat's rising star, Barack Obama. Keyes is the butt of humor because he's a carpetbagger. This is essentially the tag that he laid on Hillary Clinton when she ran for her New York Senate seat. He is a hard-line conservative who bombed in two presidential and Senate bids.

But Keyes' nomination is no political joke. He has name recognition, is a polished debater, and has a telegenic presence. With the monster national media hit that Obama got from his Democratic National Convention speech, the mostly idolatrous press that he has enjoyed since then, and a near $10 million war campaign chest, a challenger without the political savvy and name recognition of Keyes would be a lamb led to the slaughter. Keyes' opposition to abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, and his tout of school prayer are classic wedge issues that Republicans are adroit at exploiting. He could bag lots of votes from conservative Republicans in central and downstate Illinois by pushing these views. It will also be tough for Democrats to pound him as an out of state import. He can shoot back, "But what about Hillary."

It can be said that Republicans played their own version of the race card by picking Keyes in what amounts to be a not too transparent effort to whittle down the massive support Obama will get from blacks and moderate whites. Still, the fact that Keyes is an African-American could allay the squeamishness moderate Republicans feel about his hardcore conservatism. Republicans can also stand that argument on its head and boast that the party is colorblind and they picked Keyes because he is a seasoned political campaigner, and given the lack of time and political pressure to get someone to challenge Obama, he was the best choice.

Keyes' past political failures are no indication of how he could fare in Illinois. When he ran against Robert Dole in 1996 and George Bush in 2000, he was the longest of long shot presidential candidates and posed no threat to the frontrunners. His candidacy was unabashedly ideological and aimed at pushing Republicans further to the right on social issues. But the Illinois Senate race is different. A Republican, Peter Fitzgerald, held the seat for one term. The likelihood is that as an incumbent if he had chosen to run he would have been heavily favored to win reelection. His retirement gave Obama the opening to run. In effect, it's a one on one contest for an open seat.

Obama, like Keyes, is still relatively unknown statewide in Illinois. He has the daunting task of making voters know who he is and what his stance on the issues is.

The Keyes candidacy also poses a dilemma for Democratic presidential contender John Kerry, and potentially a dividend for Bush. Illinois is no lock for the Democrats. It's a highly contested key battleground state. If Obama had faced weak or nonexistent opposition, he would have cakewalked to victory. This would have enabled the top Democrats to free up more money, and exclusively devote their energies into mobilizing support for Kerry. But a hard charge by Keyes at the Senate seat could force Obama and the Democrats to spend more money and time trying to win that seat.

Keyes has been roundly ridiculed for his outspoken and inflexible conservatism. The thinking is that this makes him a political aberration who has no chance of being competitive, let alone winning a race. That's silly, patronizing, and ignores some changing political realties. A July poll by Black Entertainment Television/CBS found that blacks are overwhelmingly hostile to Bush. But it also found that fewer than one out of three blacks are enthusiastic about Kerry. Other polls show that an increasing number of blacks, particularly the younger, call themselves independents, while a not insignificant percentage of blacks say they favor Bush's re-election.

The rare times that Republicans have made a real effort to attract blacks, put money into a black Republican candidate's campaign and delivered on their promise to pump more resources into health care, education, minority business, and education programs, they have loosened the Democrats' stranglehold on the black vote. That happened most notably in the election in 2002 of Lieutenant Governors Michael Steele in Maryland and Jennette Bradley in Ohio. In the July Georgia Senate primary, black Republican Herman Cain made a respectable second place showing by emphasizing conservative Republican social themes.

This does not mean that Keyes will beat Obama. The Democrat has charisma, massive support, and plenty of cash. It does mean that Keyes can make the race interesting; maybe even a real horse race, and that's no laughing matter for the Democrats.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of 'The Crisis in Black and Black' (Middle Passage Press).