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Last Updated: Tuesday, 12 October, 2004, 09:34 GMT 10:34 UK
Debate marks historic Senate race
By Catherine Miller
BBC, Chicago

Barack Obama speaks to supporters at a campaign rally (Picture: Catherine Miller)
Obama has generated terrific excitement in Illinois
When the people of Illinois tune in to Tuesday's first debate between their two Senate candidates, they will hear history in the making.

For the first time ever, both major parties have fielded black candidates - Barack Obama for the Democrats and Alan Keyes for the Republicans.

The two men are vying to replace retiring Republican Senator Peter Fitzgerald in this Midwestern state.

One or the other is set to become only the fifth African-American senator in US history.


Mr Obama is causing something of a revolution.

The whoops and cheers when he steps on stage at a barbeque rally in North Aurora make it hard to believe that the town is normally staunchly Republican territory.

But North Aurora, and white middle-class towns like it across the state, have fallen head over heels for the exotic-sounding son of a Kenyan father and a Kansan mother.

Grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia
Studied law at Harvard
Civil rights lawyer in Chicago
State senator for Illinois

His impassioned speech - which draws heavily on his own background, as well as invoking dreams of social justice and racial equality - has the crowd acting like starstruck teenagers.

"He is so down to earth and unassuming but the intelligence just knocks you over like a brick... he has a touch to him that is so human that makes everybody feel part of his dream," local state representative Linda Chapa Lavia says.

More modestly, Mr Obama attributes his success in reaching beyond the traditional constituency of black Democrats to questions that affect everyone.

"People of all races are concerned about a similar set of issues - housing, health care, jobs, education - and if we talk about those issues as well as about George Bush's misguided foreign policy, I think we'll do very well on [election day on] 2 November."

Fire and brimstone

Even without Mr Obama's star qualities, the Democrats would have been helped by the disarray of their Republican opposition.

Jack Ryan, who won the Republican primary, pulled out after a sex scandal and Mr Keyes was a last-minute replacement, brought in from the East Coast state of Maryland.

Mr Keyes's platform draws heavily on his Christian faith, and his stump speeches are filled with fiery condemnations of abortion, gay marriage and the separation of church and state.

Alan Keyes during his 2000 presidential campaign
Former foreign service officer
Syndicated radio talk show host
Ran for president 1996, 2000
Ran for Senate 1988, 1992
Illinois tends to like its Republicans moderate and pragmatic and Mr Keyes' fire and brimstone campaign has made little impression in the polls, which show a 45-point lead for Mr Obama.

Nonetheless, Mr Keyes is confident his message will prevail.

"I think it's perfectly clear if you ask people are you going to vote against God or for the Democratic party they will stand with God," he says.

His arrival late in the campaign from a far-off state has raised accusations of carpetbagging. Some suspect he was deliberately brought in to split Mr Obama's dominance of the African-American vote.

He rejects the accusation of tokenism.

"If they'd been looking for some kind of token there were plenty of tokens in Illinois. They were looking for the best person," he counters.

"People can no longer be influenced by race but must base their decision on who the candidates are what they stand for and how what they stand for compares to what they believe to be right."

Racial element

But despite such claims, Mr Keyes has attempted to stir up racial tensions by accusing Mr Obama of having a "slaveholder mentality" because of his support for abortion rights.

It can only be positive - it tells the world we cannot be lumped together
Donald Jackson
Illinois NAACP head
The jibes seem to have found little traction among the African-American community, and despite the controversy the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) welcomes the all-black campaign.

"It can only be positive. It tells the world we cannot be lumped together. We have independent thought within the black community - we're not all Republicans, we're not all Democrats," says Donald Jackson, who heads the NAACP in Illinois.

"I think both (candidates) have the ability to be great leaders but I do believe Barack Obama has the ability to be more successful."

If Mr Obama does win as predicted, he will carry a heavy burden of expectation to Capitol Hill.

He has already been touted as the potential first African-American president and in the Senate will be expected to represent not just Illinois but the hopes of all African-Americans.

"There's been a real void in (African-American) leadership," Mr Jackson says.

"Mr Obama is the first one on a national level that can move not only African-Americans, but people generally. I do think that he fills a void that has been there since Dr (Martin Luther) King's death."

Those are big shoes to fill, but wherever Mr Obama's future lies, he - with Mr Keyes - is making a historic start.


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