WHEN PRESIDENT Bush went before the National Urban League conference two weeks ago, after blowing off the NAACP convention, he told the largely African American audience: "I know, I know, I know. Listen, the Republican Party has got a lot of work to do. I understand that." The truth of the statement has been brought home dramatically by the unfolding spectacle of the U.S. Senate race in Illinois. Facing popular Democratic state Sen. Barack Obama on the November ballot, the Illinois Republican Party -- after its candidate dropped out because of some sex-related allegations -- has gone out of state in search of a party member to pick up the GOP flag. That, alone, ought to be humiliating for a major party in a big state. But then Republicans in the Land of Lincoln -- and this is the political party that preaches world without end that it is race-blind and wedded only to merit -- actively sought out African American candidates to run against Mr. Obama, also an African American. Cynical you say? Yes, and tokenism, too. But then they settled on erstwhile senatorial and presidential candidate and talk show host Alan Keyes of Montgomery County, Maryland. Illinois Republican machinations, once amusing, are now absurd.

It's clear by now that Mr. Keyes loves the limelight and to hear himself speak, notwithstanding his rejection by voters in two U.S. Senate races in Maryland and two runs for the GOP presidential nomination. So it comes as no surprise that he would drop everything and hustle out to Illinois where he has never lived, to run for an office he can't win, and for a cause -- his own -- that deserves to lose. But that Mr. Keyes would allow himself to be drafted because of his skin color is beyond anything we would have expected, given his own long-standing vocal opposition to race-conscious decision making. Who out there believes for one second that the Illinois Republican Party would have reached halfway across the country for a candidate with Mr. Keyes's losing track record if the Democratic candidate were not African American? That Mr. Keyes succumbed to their blandishments is a sad commentary on the needs of his ego and the desperation -- or shall we say apparent defeatism -- of a Republican Party that turns to a Marylander with a track record that almost rivals that of Harold Stassen. Mr. Bush got it right. We leave you with this cogitation of Mr. Keyes in 2000: "And I deeply resent 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."