Barack Obama, the new prince - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Barack Obama, the new prince

National Post reporters are chronicling the waning days of the U.S. election in a continuing series of stories from the American campaign trail.

Today: Chicago.

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 presidential nomination.

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.

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