updated 8/4/2004 11:46:04 AM ET 2004-08-04T15:46:04

After weeks of searching for a U.S. Senate candidate, Illinois Republicans have narrowed their choice to two black politicians, a development that seemingly assures Illinois will produce the fifth black U.S. senator in history.

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State party chairwoman Judy Baar Topinka said Republican leaders would interview Alan Keyes, a two-time presidential candidate, and Andrea Grubb Barthwell, a former deputy drug czar in the Bush administration, on Wednesday and then choose one to take on Barack Obama, a black state senator from Chicago and Democratic rising star.

“I believe it would be unprecedented that two African-Americans face one another for a seat in the United States Senate,” said Jim Nowlan, a senior fellow at the University of Illinois Institute of Government and Public Affairs and a former Republican state lawmaker.

GOP leaders picked Keyes and Barthwell after a daylong meeting Tuesday where they met with an eclectic group of more than a dozen potential candidates and settled on the ones they thought could best articulate the issues.

Republicans, who have struggled to find a replacement candidate since Jack Ryan dropped out over embarrassing allegations in his divorce records, said race wasn’t their motivating factor in choosing Keyes and Barthwell.

“These two were selected because of their strengths, not because of their color,” said state Sen. Dave Syverson, a member of the Republican State Central Committee. “Voters are smarter than that. That clearly wasn’t the intent.”

Scheduling conflict
Keyes couldn’t make it to Chicago because of a scheduling conflict, but Syverson talked to the committee on Keyes’ behalf. By delaying the decision until Wednesday, the committee gave Keyes time to get to Chicago for a personal interview. Syverson said Keyes did not want to talk to reporters Tuesday night, and he could not immediately be reached for comment.

Barthwell said she did not think the committee made her a finalist because she is black.

“I don’t think that this committee is playing any kind of race card here,” she said. “I think they have looked at the candidates and the strengths they can bring to it and how they position themselves on the issues.”

Keyes and Barthwell are relative political unknowns in Illinois.

Barthwell, a physician from suburban Chicago, was deputy director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy from 2002 until last month, when she quit to explore the Senate run.

Keyes ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate twice from his home state of Maryland and sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 and 2000. He has never lived in Illinois but under state law would only have to take up residence by Election Day, Nov. 2.

Republicans have suffered a string of disappointments since Ryan dropped his Senate campaign. Party leaders repeatedly tried and failed to enlist a big-name candidate to run for the seat of retiring GOP Sen. Peter Fitzgerald — former governors, state senators and Chicago Bears great Mike Ditka have all declined.

Whoever is chosen now will have just three months to raise cash and campaign against Obama, who has captured national media attention, raised more than $10 million, and was tapped to give the keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention.

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