National Post reporters
are chronicling the waning days of the U.S. election in a continuing series
of stories from the American campaign trail.
CHICAGO - It's a Thursday power lunch at the Hilton Hotel ballroom and
Chicago's elite are out in force.
Wealthy businessmen, influential policy-makers and city politicians rub
elbows at tables squeezed close together to make room for 900 guests. Lunch is
running late. Members of the crowd shift impatiently as they await the duel
between Barack Obama, uncrowned prince of the Democratic party, and Republican
challenger Alan Keyes.
This is the first time two black men have battled for a Senate seat, and the
winner will become the only black senator in Washington. There is no question
who that will be: By every account, Mr. Obama will crush Mr. Keyes. The Democrat
is so far ahead in the polls, he spends much of his time touring the country,
stumping for other candidates.
It is the personalities of the candidates -- and the high hopes for Mr. Obama
-- that make the race worth watching, and that is why the Hilton ballroom is
packed. Mr. Obama's star power earns him comparisons to a rock star; Mr. Keyes'
rhetoric sees him likened to an alien species.
Mr. Obama, 43, is a state senator who has lived in Illinois for 20 years. He
attracted widespread attention by delivering a rousing keynote address at the
Democratic convention in Boston in July. Democrats consider him their rising
star: His speech was such a hit, there are already murmurs about him running for
president or vice-president in 2008.
Articulate and intelligent, he looks untouchable -- the best dirt the Chicago
Sun-Times could dig up is that he smokes three Marlboros a day.
Mr. Obama has raised more than US$14-million and donated hundreds of
thousands of it to fellow Democratic candidates. His rallies are like rock
concerts, with dozens of supporters lining up for autographs after the show.
"I was kind of star-struck," gushes Lily Emerson, a 21-year-old theatre
student who recently attended an Obama rally in Decatur, Ill. "He was really
funny and very charming, but not at all in a slick politician sort of way."
He leads the polls by 45 to 50 points on any given day. He spends time dining
with the likes of movie star Robin Williams and attending out-of-state rallies
for Senator John Kerry, which is almost unheard of for a first-time federal
candidate. He is still self-deprecating about his success.
"If we can do these things in ways that fit in with our Illinois campaign
schedule, then we're happy to help," he told reporters at the Hilton.
Mr. Keyes, 54, is an outspoken talk show host and former ambassador to the
United Nations. He has unsuccessfully run for the Senate and the Republican
He was not supposed to be Mr. Obama's competition. The original Republican
nominee, Jack Ryan, withdrew after a judge unsealed divorce documents in which
his ex-wife Jeri Ryan (star of Boston Public and Star Trek: Voyager) alleged he
took her to sex clubs and encouraged her to have sex in front of others.
After the GOP was unable to find a candidate in Illinois willing to take on
Mr. Obama, Mr. Keyes swooped in from Maryland and rented an apartment in Calumet
City, Ill. In the past, he has criticized Hillary Clinton for being an
opportunist by running for the Senate from New York.
Mr. Keyes, a staunch Roman Catholic, is campaigning on "America's moral
crisis." He advocates turning the system on its head -- for example, replacing
income tax by a national sales tax; administering welfare through churches and
revamping legislation to encourage marriage.
"Obama definitely impressed me," says Ms. Emerson, the theatre student,
"whereas Alan Keyes gives me the creeps. He seems kind of crazy and seems
overboard with his views."
Mr. Keyes also takes direct aim at Mr. Obama. He has repeatedly alleged the
Democrat supports infanticide because of his position on abortion, and maintains
Jesus would not vote for him.
At the Republican convention in New York, Mr. Keyes slammed Vice-President
Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter as a "selfish hedonist." But he refused to
comment on rumours circulating on the Internet questioning his own daughter's
sexuality. ("I will answer all such questions in their appropriate context," he
told the National Post. Asked what the appropriate context was, he suggested
consulting the dictionary for definitions of "appropriate" and "context.")
Mr. Obama treats his opponent's attacks seriously. Mr. Keyes, he said in an
interview, espouses a "certain brand of politics in this country that I believe
has to be answered."
"The polls indicate we're in a strategic position," he acknowledged, "but
this is a unique race to say the least."
At the Hilton event, hosted by the nonprofit
Metropolitan Planning Council ,
the candidates were asked to address four questions on education, housing,
transportation and economic opportunity.