KEYES
M. Spencer Green  /  AP
Alan Keyes shakes hands with supporters after accepting the Illinois Republican party's nomination for the U.S. Senate race during a rally on Sunday. 
By Correspondent
NBC News
updated 8/9/2004 6:12:39 PM ET 2004-08-09T22:12:39

In an overcrowded restaurant, in withering heat, Alan Keyes made his way to the stage to stand before the Illinois Republicans who had just selected him to run for U.S. Senate — even though he is from Maryland.

After a winding speech about his embrace of the "Land of Lincoln," Keyes drew a festive cheer when he shouted, "I will promise you a fight."

By all estimates, it will be an uphill fight. Keyes, a staunch conservative, is running against Barack Obama, the rising Democratic party star. Obama drew national attention recently for his impassioned speech at the Boston convention, and is favored by political observers to easily win the Illinois Senate race.

Keyes, who opposes abortion and affirmative action, said he will attack Obama's liberal voting record, and rallied his supporters by saying, "Barack Obama, the free ride is over."

Sacrificial lamb?
Already, it is an historic contest. For the first time, two African-Americans representing the major parties will fight for a U.S. Senate seat.

Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mary Mitchell accused the Illinois GOP of playing the race card, by "looking for a black man with star power."  She also claimed the party is using Keyes, and that Keyes is using the Republicans to draw attention to himself. Video: Keyes enters Illinois Senate race

In her column, Mitchell wrote that whoever runs against Obama will be a sacrificial lamb. "So what happened to all the white lambs? Why aren't they being sacrificed?" she wrote.

Keyes is entering the race late, replacing Jack Ryan, who withdrew from the campaign amid embarrassing allegations about trips to sex clubs with his wife.

Other Illinois Republicans considered running in Ryan's place, but quickly declined. Among them was former Chicago Bears football coach Mike Ditka. It was then that the Illinois Republican leadership tapped Keyes to run, and he accepted.

Republicans grasping at straws?
By law, Keyes will have to establish residency in Illinois by election day. Opponents pointed out that four years ago Keyes criticized Hillary Clinton's move to New York to run for the Senate. Now, Keyes finds himself being accused by critics of being a carpetbagger.

Supporters said his conservative message is more important that his home address, and promised he will energize the campaign with his speaking and debating abilities, and his morally-based positions on national issues.

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Political consultant Don Rose, who usually represents Democrats, compared the Republicans' decision to select Keyes to "a piece of comic opera." 

"This is really weird, because they take a candidate who does not live here, who has no relationship to Illinois. They take a black who has no relationship to the mainstream of the black community," Rose said.

Keyes twice ran for President, and lost two races for the U.S. Senate in Maryland. He is Harvard-educated, a former U.N. ambassador during the Reagan Administration, and worked briefly as a talk show host for MSNBC.

At the Sunday rally announcing Keyes' candidacy, veteran Illinois Congressman Henry Hyde threw his support to the new GOP candidate, and said, "If the voters will keep an open mind, you may get the surprise of your life November 2nd."

Don Rose, the political consultant, disagreed. "The Republican party in Illinois is desperate, without resources, knows it's going to lose, and are clutching at straws."

In closing remarks at his first campaign appearance, Keyes told the cheering audience, "Tell them the battle is joined, that the fight is in our hands. The battle is for us. But I am confident, because the victory is for God."

Mark Potter is an NBC News correspondent on assignment in Chicago.

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