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  BLACK ON BLACK IN ILLINOIS.  
   
   
 

CHICAGO -- Thank the transparent folks on the Illinois Republican Committee for the latest reality show.

The spotlight shines on Illinois as Americans across the country focus on the state's Senatorial race. What happens when, for the first time,

 
 

you pit two black Harvard-educated men against each other in the political arena? Observers have already seen grenades thrown on each side in the form of verbal barbs and racial rhetoric. The race is billed as classic confrontation of liberal and conservative ideologies.

But the GOP's waiver-wire acquisition of Alan Keyes smirks of a familiar Major League Baseball practice. When a team lacks prospects in its minor league system, management will scout other teams and sign a free agent to fill a position. Importing Maryland's Keyes, who had remained quiet after his 2000 failed Presidential bid, feels like a panic reaction to the loss of the Republican's most prized prospect, Jack Ryan. Tapping Keyes simply shows the state lacks viable Republican candidates. The farm system is dry.

Few potential candidates gave serious thoughts to facing State Sen. Barack Obama after Ryan beamed out of the race when intimate details of his sex life with his ex-wife, Star Trek vixen Jeri Ryan, were released. The challengers Ryan defeated in the Republican state primary cited pride and the fact Obama looks like a runaway train; no one volunteered to be the lamb attending that particular slaughter.

After Obama received the rock

       
 

star treatment in Boston at the Democratic National Convention, Republicans feared that, without a race to worry about Illinois, Obama would travel the country and campaign for John Kerry. So the Republicans are now playing a game of keep-away by forcing Obama to stump in his indigenous forest.

But first, Republicans had to find a candidate who could provide, if nothing else, something resembling a race.

During the search for a challenger, Republicans considered former Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka, trying to capitalize on his still thriving popularity. Regrettably, there remain a few in the state trapped in a perpetual Super Bowl Shuffle. Ditka, who in 1986 took the Windy City's NFL team to a Super Bowl victory, lacks political experience, but never shied away from voicing his self-described "ultra-conservative" views. Part of the profits made from his first Downtown Chicago restaurant supported anti-abortion causes. Da Coach, with a cushy ESPN studio gig and hefty endorsement sums, politely declined the Republicans' overture.

The ploy for Ditka posed little surprise. Imagine the Illinois Republican Committee meeting together in a crowded room, when a plucky and ambitious member, proudly thinking "out-of-the-box," floated Ditka's name. The fluke factor weighed heavily, given the success of governors Schwarzenegger and Ventura. Keep in mind former actor turned President Reagan called Illinois home. Dire times call for dire measures.

As the Republicans' candidate list dwindled, a new strategy was developed. Obama's popularity among minorities had to be deflated. The mantra shifted to fighting fire with fire.

Ditka wasn't the only former Bear suggested, as one of the players he coached, Dave Duerson, also reluctantly found himself in the Republican Party crosshairs. A University of Notre Dame graduate, and current sports radio commentator, Duerson keeps his radio gig strictly for gridiron analysis, not a soapbox for his political affiliations.

Duerson, black, had no interest in the senate seat. His resume was sent to the Republicans without his consent. To his credit, he immediately quashed any speculation that he would run and admitted to being a "conservative Democrat." And then he promptly endorsed Obama.

"Clearly they were desperate," Duerson told reporters.

Spurned by Duerson, the Republicans continued to target minorities, including women. Cook County Commissioner Elizabeth Doody Gorman's name was bantered about. Gorman lacked the experience and knowledge to be strong candidate, according to a newspaper reporter who is familiar with Gorman's southwest suburban Chicago district. Dr. Andrea Grubb Barthwell, the former deputy director in the Office of National Drug Control Policy, came in as a runner-up to Keyes when the field was narrowed to two. But Barthwell, black, had little ties to Chicago living in Washington, D.C.

Which is how we got to Keyes, the same man who has ripped others who have run for Senatorial seats outside their state of residence (read: Hillary), will swallow his pride and try to save the Republicans some face. Of course Hillary ran in the primary and earned her party's Senatorial endorsement in New York. The thinking here is his prior national exposure will slow down the Obama machine. At the very least, the articulate Keyes serves as a distraction that should provide some captivating theater during the debates.

Keyes is an odd one. He doesn't mind that the party is exploiting his skin tone because he's here to do God's work. This is a two-time Presidential loser and a two-time loser for Senate in his own state. But if he can get God's foot through the door by any means, he'll make a valiant attempt. Less then a week into the campaign Keyes already dealt the race card, attempting to create a rift between Obama and his strong black base. Keyes labeled Obama's pro-abortion stance as "the slaveholder's position." Keyes, outspoken against abortion, carefully chose his words and precisely delivered them.

Having to play catch up with November's election rapidly approaching, baby steps won't help the Republican hopeful. Cue the chorus of boos greeting Keyes at Chicago's annual Bud Billiken Parade last weekend. The back-to-school parade is held on Chicago's mostly black South Side. On the other hand, Obama's appearance drew cheers and the staccatoed chant of "O-BA-MA!"

Given the applause Obama drew after the Democratic National Convention, some overeager liberals were ready to anoint Obama America's first black president. But as Chicagoans have danced this step before. Back in 1992, Carol Moseley-Braun was another liberal hope. Moseley-Braun held the seat Obama and Keyes are vying for until a political meltdown turned it over to Republican Peter Fitzgerald in 1998. It would be too simplistic to condemn and compare Obama's candidacy to Braun's solely on the tone of their skin, but let's remember, even with Obama's Rouseau-like social contract banter, he hasn't drafted any federal legislation. An enthusiastic made-for-TV speech may provide short-term hope, but it's no substitute for experience.

While Moseley-Braun was trotted out as the latest minority on parade, she grew complacent. Several ill-advised trips to Nigeria and an investigation by the Internal Revenue Service were just the start of her downfall. She never managed to fulfill the potential others saw in her and never served Illinois to the best of her abilities. Moseley-Braun's political spotlight has dimmed; she was last seen in the Obama camp sifting through the shambles of her own comedic presidential bid.

Obama may be more prepared then Moseley-Braun ever was, but it was only in 2000, before he had developed his smooth speaking skills, that Obama tasted failure losing against Bobby Rush in his initial bid for a senate seat. Even President Clinton endorsed Rush, a former Black Panther. Perhaps Obama's left-wing mentality failed to mesh well with Clinton's successful moderate liberal philosophy. What a difference a few years makes with Bill and Barack sharing the main stage in Boston.

The best the Republicans can hope for is a pyrrhic victory -- at least a lesson from the Ryan debacle. Because when Keyes loses, he'll just leave his new Calumet City, Ill. home and the state party with nothing and hop on a plane back to Maryland. Maybe in another six years with President Obama in the Oval Office, the GOP will have developed a viable Senatorial candidate from Illinois -- black, white or left handed.

It never hurts to dream.