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Thursday, Aug. 19, 2004 04:16 am

Deal with it

Word from on high is that the U.S. Senate's Republicans are planning to contribute lots of money to candidate Alan Keyes.

It's not that the national pooh-bahs actually believe Keyes can win, mind you. You'll be hard-pressed to find a sane person to predict that. Then again, what sane person could have predicted a month ago that Alan Keyes would be one of our U.S. Senate candidates?

The national GOP's main object is to keep Barack Obama pinned down in Illinois. With a little bit of money, Keyes will most likely complete that task.

A lot of theories are floating around as to why the Illinois Republicans chose Keyes. I'm not sure whether any of them is completely true. And I'm pretty sure that some of them, true or not, are downright cockeyed, particularly the notion that Keyes will help the Republicans take back the state Senate.

After the fact, however, it's pretty clear that one major benefit for the national Republicans is that Obama will have to stay close to Illinois until November, despite all of the offers that will come his way from out-of-state Democratic candidates in tight races who would greatly benefit from an appearance by Obama. Obama has become such a celebrity that the Republicans worry that he could help push a couple of Democratic candidates over the top. They need to keep him home.

Keyes obviously relishes in-your-face politics. We caught a little glimpse of that last week when he slammed Obama for refusing to debate him the same number of times that Obama had promised the previous Republican candidate, Jack Ryan.

At first Obama tried to dismiss Keyes, quipping that the six-debates proposal was an in-state offer only. But Keyes hit back hard, even suggesting that Obama should drop out of the race if he didn't have the guts to debate. Obama was obviously knocked off his game for the first time this year. Reporters pressed Obama about his refusal to debate throughout the day, and almost every Chicago newspaper columnist criticized him the next day for taking the safe road and not keeping his word.

Whatever you may think of him, Keyes is the legal, legitimate Illinois Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate. Obama may have forgotten that. Keyes may be a bit on the strange side, and he may not have ever lived here, but he's the guy we all have to deal with until November, and he deserves some respect for his position, if not for some of his more off-the-wall, um, positions.

Getting back to the topic at hand, just imagine for a moment what the "carpetbagger" Marylander would say if "longtime resident" Obama spends what Keyes considers too much time out of state. "Why, he ought to be here, like I am," he might fume, perhaps ending his tirade with a characteristic 19th-century flourish about the intrinsic joys of traveling through the great state of Illinois.

And even if Keyes doesn't say anything about Obama's travels, this is a man who once chained himself to a building to protest his exclusion from a presidential debate. He could say or do just about anything. It would be better to stick around.

Something else occurred to me last week: Because so many people feel insulted that someone from another state is running for Senate here, the first debate between Keyes and Obama will undoubtedly turn into an Illinois history/geography/current-events quiz. Keyes has a very good reason for not knowing most of the answers. But if Obama flubs just one question, it could be a serious disaster. To his credit, while speaking on a radio talk show last week, Keyes knew how many counties in Illinois had township governments and how many didn't. I didn't know that. Did you? Obama had better start studying.

Obama isn't exactly accustomed to negative publicity. He's had almost no bad press since declaring his candidacy. The vast majority of his write-ups, particularly since the primary, have been glowing. Normally jaded, cynical political reporters practically slobbered all over themselves after his Democratic-convention speech. It should be interesting to see how he deals with this little setback.

More important, however, is how Obama will handle an opponent who almost assuredly cannot win but has already displayed a remarkable ability to make the "rock star" frontrunner look like a mope.

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