Democratic Star Barack Obama Now Has A Challenger

Conservative commentator Alan Keyes to compete for Illinois Senate seat.

Sure, the presidential election is going to be tight this year, but it doesn't have a monopoly on political excitement.

On Sunday, conservative political commentator Alan Keyes announced he would enter the Illinois race for U.S. Senate, taking on rising Democratic star Barack Obama. Minor detail: Keyes lives in Maryland and has never lived in Illinois. But this is only the latest twist in what is shaping up to be one of the most memorable political contests in recent history.

The fun started six weeks ago when Obama’s first Republican opponent, Jack Ryan, was forced to drop out after court files from his divorce were unsealed — revealing that he had pressured his ex-wife, actress Jeri Ryan ("Star Trek: Voyager," "Boston Public"), into accompanying him to sex clubs in Europe. Ryan was out.

After approaching other local Republican politicians with little success, the Illinois Republican Party expanded its search to include such untraditional candidates as '70s rocker Ted Nugent and former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka. Neither jumped at the opportunity.

With less than three months till the election, the increasingly desperate Illinois Republicans turned to someone who lived halfway across the country. Keyes, a former ambassador to the United Nations and a four-time losing political candidate (in 1988 and 1992 races for the Senate in Maryland and for the presidency in 1996 and 2000), has spent most of the past decade writing books and hosting talk shows.

Was the fact that Keyes might not know Springfield from Spring Grove a problem? Or the fact that in 2000, when Keyes was courted by New York Republicans to run against Hillary Clinton, he told Fox News that he "deeply resent[ed] the destruction of federalism represented by Hillary Clinton's willingness to go into a state she doesn't even live in and pretend to represent people there. So I certainly wouldn't imitate it."

Apparently none of that mattered to hard-pressed Illinois Republicans. It’s not illegal, for one thing — according to federal law, Keyes has until Election Day to establish residency in Illinois. In addition, Keyes also tried to show that there is precedent for this sort of thing in Illinois (kind of). In announcing his candidacy, Keyes made much of the fact that while Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky, he later ran for Senate in Illinois. According to Keyes, “I’ve lived in the Land of Lincoln [ideologically] all my life, and I will be proud to call Illinois my home.” Not mentioned was the fact that Lincoln had lived in Illinois for 25 years before his first Senate bid.

Keyes also invoked Lincoln in predicting debates similar to the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates of the 1850s, a comparison that may not be far off. Obama and Keyes are both Harvard-educated thinkers and gifted speakers. Obama recently wowed the crowd at the Democratic National Convention (see "Who Is Barack Obama?"), while Keyes is one of the most fiery political orators around. Both are also unafraid to stand up for what they believe — Keyes is a vocal opponent of abortion, gay rights and gun control, and he claims he decided to enter the race after reviewing Obama's opposing record on these issues and determining someone had to challenge him.

No matter who wins, history will be made because it will be the first race between two black candidates for a statewide office. Whoever wins will become only the third black Senator since Reconstruction (just the fifth overall) and the only one currently serving in the Senate.

Obama is considered the favorite. Illinois is an increasingly Democratic state, and he has had a five-month head start in which to travel the state, shaking hands and raising money. Yet if anyone can shake things up in the next three months, it’s Keyes. In his announcement, Keyes promised "a battle like this nation has never seen," and he's hoping that this race hasn’t taken its last twist.