SPRINGFIELD, Ill. -- In the space of six weeks, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Alan Keyes has branded his Democratic opponent an "academic socialist" and said Jesus would not vote for him. He has likened the Illinois political machine to Third World despotism. He has said homosexuals, including Vice President Cheney's daughter, Mary, are "selfish hedonists."
"What was I supposed to say, 'No, she's the vice president's daughter, she's exempt?' " Keyes asked one day recently aboard his campaign mobile home, rolling south on Interstate 55 to a rally here.
Keyes, itinerant apostle of conservatism, lost two U.S. Senate races in Maryland and finished far out of the money in two Republican campaigns for the presidency. He is now on his way to losing the Illinois battle for the Senate by 45 percentage points, if recent polls are borne out.
Overtaking his opponent, Democratic meteor Barack Obama, was always an impossibility, but Keyes has polarized even the Republicans. To his own great delight.
Keyes has exposed -- and critics contend he has deepened -- a rift among Illinois Republicans. When they have won statewide office, they have won with candidates who espoused more moderate social and political values than those beloved by Keyes and his followers.
"I'm a Republican, but it's the worst thing that could happen to Republicans," said Ron Pierce, a locksmith attending a dinner of the McHenry County Friends of NRA.
The welcome for Keyes was mixed -- polite, scattered applause and no cheers -- as he began to work the tables. To some in this group, Keyes's candidacy is a sideshow that only highlighted the party's futility. Several said he has devoted too much time to the wrong issues.
"He's for the Second Amendment and against abortion. That's all well and good, but he's not from Illinois, so he shouldn't even be here," said Richard Beebe, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business. "He doesn't have a chance."
Keyes, 53, jumped into the race in August when the Illinois Republican Party found itself without a likely candidate. The previous Republican contender, Jack Ryan, dropped out of the race after his ex-wife said he had tried to pressure her into having sex at clubs in front of others.
The state GOP found few others willing to challenge the charismatic Obama and his $10 million war chest. They checked with local political luminaries and had a short dance with former Chicago Bears coach and twinkle-eyed tough guy Mike Ditka, to no avail.
Enter Keyes. Sharp-tongued and -- like Obama -- Harvard-educated, he had many titles. He is a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, a former assistant secretary of state, former president of Alabama A&M University and former talk show host.
When he was recruited for the campaign, he was a freelancer in several fields, working to make a living as a lecturer and writer while training for a marathon. The state of Maryland had placed a $7,481.99 lien on his Gaithersburg home for an unpaid 1997 income tax claim.
Keyes had never lived in Illinois, but he liked the campaign idea -- not least because Obama would be his opponent. Keyes and Obama are African Americans, ensuring the Senate its third popularly elected black senator in history.
Obama had just electrified Democrats with his speech to the national convention in July. Keyes said he decided he could not live with himself 20 years from now if he stood on the sidelines as the Illinois state senator rolled to a Senate victory and then the White House.