Far from home, far from victory

Alan Keyes: Transplanted Marylander's uphill battle in Illinois fuels speculation about his motives.

Election 2004

September 22, 2004|By John Woestendiek | John Woestendiek,SUN STAFF

WHEATON, Ill. - Alan Keyes was running late, and even a Republican supporter loyal enough to show up for a 6 a.m. campaign "meet and greet" couldn't resist saying out loud what many were probably thinking.

"Do you think he's lost?"

No one laughed, but there were a few tight-lipped smiles. The tardy candidate had, after all, only recently moved from Maryland - or at least temporarily relocated - before this campaign stop in a strongly Republican suburb of Chicago.

Once he arrived in Wheaton, 20 minutes late, the former United Nations ambassador and two-time presidential candidate was greeted warmly. But that hasn't always been the case since Keyes was tapped (after several others declined) to run for Senate in Illinois against rising Democratic Party star Barack Obama.

A weekend later, when Keyes went to Chicago's Bud Billiken Day Parade to work the crowd, the candidate found himself worked over by the crowd instead. "Go Back to Maryland," some parade-goers shouted.

Why would anyone knowingly step into such a lose-lose situation? Why would such a highly intelligent being try to get from Maryland to D.C. by way of Illinois? What does Keyes, who rented a second-floor apartment in Calumet City, Ill., to establish residency, stand to gain?

Keyes did not respond to requests to discuss those questions. But answers offered from those in his old 'hood and in his new one vary only slightly.

"If he loses, he just goes back home," said Eugene Zarwell, a one-time opponent of Keyes in Maryland. (Keyes owns a home on three acres near Gaithersburg, assessed at $715,000.) "If he wins, he already has a nice place to stay in the Washington area. He's a step ahead of the game."

"TV cameras are like oxygen to him, and he's breathing heavily," said David Axelrod, a Chicago media consultant working for Obama. "If anybody in Maryland is despairing, tell them we hope to dispatch him back there as soon as possible."

Those who know Keyes differ when speculating on why he's running - whether it's to feed his ego or his family, whether it's to push conservative causes or stay in the spotlight - but critics and supporters agree that whether it's a lecture hall, TV shoutfest, talk radio or campaign trail, Alan Keyes will go pretty much anywhere for a platform. Even if it opens him up to charges of hypocrisy.

When Hillary Rodham Clinton moved to New York to run for the Senate in 2000, Keyes said: "I deeply resent the destruction of federalism represented by Hillary Clinton's willingness to go into a state she doesn't even live in and pretend to represent people there. So I certainly wouldn't imitate it."

After he did just that, he explained the difference this way:

"To sacrifice respect for state sovereignty and true representational integrity for the sake of personal ambition and a personal agenda, as Hillary Rodham Clinton did, is wrong. I deeply condemn it. But to be called by the Illinois state party to come and defend the principles of our national union against someone who, on a whole range of issues, rejects those principles is in fact not only to act in the interest of federalism, it is to act in the deep interests of the people of Illinois, who share with me a commitment to those principles."

And that was off the top of his head. Keyes does have a way with words. He walks listeners through the facts, as he sees them, in what some critics say is the manner of a patronizing college professor. Between his intelligence and zeal, the results can be striking at times, alienating at others.

Supporters offended

During the Republican National Convention, Keyes declined an offer to make a brief address, instead spending his time in media interviews. In one, he managed to offend some supporters when he said he considered Vice President Cheney's lesbian daughter, like all homosexuals, a "selfish hedonist."

Obama, on the other hand, left his party's convention in the glow of the national spotlight. The eight-year veteran of the Illinois General Assembly dazzled Democrats with his prime-time speech in Boston.

One small school of thought is that, after Obama's star turn, Keyes was sent to Illinois to keep the Democrat so busy fending off verbal flurries that he would have no time to campaign nationally. Another, more subscribed to, is that the Republican Party in Illinois is in such disarray that a small and vocal fringe was able to have its way and choose a far-right candidate.

Historic confrontation

In any event, the choice of Keyes has set up what will be a historic - and possibly histrionic - confrontation.

The race is the first in the nation in which two black candidates have vied for a Senate seat.

And with two such gifted orators - both Harvard-educated, with near opposite views, from different states - most political observers expect an entertaining contest, with lots of jokes, some drama but, they say, a predictable outcome.

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