by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
(PNS) -- The wisecracks and guffaws came fast and furious the instant Illinois Republicans hinted they would nominate out-of-state Republican pitchman Alan Keyes to run against black Illinois state legislator and rising Democratic 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's got 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 he's received since then and a near-$10 million campaign war 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 and affirmative action, and his tout of school prayer are classic wedge issues Republicans are adept at exploiting. He could bag lots of votes from conservative Republicans in central and downstate Illinois. 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 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 that they picked Keyes because he is a seasoned political campaigner. Given the lack of time to get someone to challenge Obama, they'll say, Keyes 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 Fitzgerald had chosen to run he would have been heavily favored to win re-election. His retirement gave Obama an opening. 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 introducing himself to voters.
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 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 with no chance of winning. That 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 less than one out of three blacks are enthusiastic about Kerry. Other polls show that an increasing number of blacks, particularly younger blacks, 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 promises to pump more resources into health care, education, minority business and education programs, they've dented the Democrat's stranglehold on the black vote. That happened most notably in the election in 2002 of Lt. Govs. 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.
All 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 and maybe even a real horse race -- and that's no laughing matter for the Democrats.
August 10, 2004 (http://www.albionmonitor.net) All Rights Reserved. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to use in any format.
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