Liberal critics have skewered Illinois Republican Alan Keyes for taking on Democratic megastar Barack Obama in the race for the state's open Senate seat.

They've labeled the longtime Maryland resident a carpetbagger and an opportunist, and then unfairly dredge up an ancient jab Keyes took at fellow Illinoisan Hillary Rodham Clinton when she announced her run for the Senate in New York.

"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," he said then.

Well, let's face it. Federalism has always been a bit overrated.

Even so, his opponents claim that ancient allegation, made more than four long years ago, makes Keyes's latest campaign foray The Mother of All Flip-Flops.

Puh-leeze. It's wonderful to have the always-entertaining Maryland radio talk show host back in the hunt. Maybe he can't possibly win, but so what? The media love this guy.

Granted, he has lost races for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 1988 and 1992. He also lost his bid for the GOP presidential nomination in 1996 and 2000.

But he has never lost in November in Illinois, has he? Well, has he?

On the other hand, this outsider business could possibly hurt the campaign. And his response on Sunday to the carpetbagging allegation could -- and should -- have been more deft.

"I was convinced someone had to run against Obama," he said. Who could disagree? That's what democracy is all about. But odds are most folks thought someone from Illinois should run against Obama. So that line isn't likely to do the trick. Worse yet, Keyes won't have much time to come up with better ones, since he'll be house-hunting, moving and getting a new driver's license.

BUT LOOP FANS CAN HELP! Yes, it's the first Loop Carpetbagger Deflection contest.

Keyes needs a sound-bite explanation for his gracious assent to move to the Land of Lincoln. Something like: "I've always been a Cubs fan; I decided to come clean now because I could no longer pretend to like the O's." Or: "Lake Michigan has no jellyfish." Or, you can go negative: "Why, we're practically neighbors. That joker was raised in Hawaii. You know how far Honolulu is from Chicago?" (About 6,400 miles.)

This is a two-day contest. So it's e-mail only. Entries -- to -- must be in by 10 a.m. Friday. And you must put home, work and/or cell phone numbers on your entry. As usual, Hill and administration folks can enter on "background" or even "deep background."

The 10 best entries will receive one of our highly coveted In the Loop T-shirts and, who knows, maybe even an invite to Keyes's swearing-in.

Frankly Speaking

Speaking of carpetbaggers, retired Gen. Tommy R. Franks, head of the Iraq war effort when he ran the U.S. Central Command, was asked Monday at the National Press Club whether, if asked, he would run for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois.

"Actually," Franks said, "I was thinking maybe of New York." The crowd roared. "Hey, they have a precedent for that, you know."

The retired general appears to be having a good time these days, working the circuit, flogging his memoir, "American Soldier."

Maybe he's having too good a time, in fact, because he has been veering dangerously off-message. On ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, he was asked, "Do you think Senator Kerry is qualified to be commander in chief?"

"Absolutely!" he said. Absolutely?

Is Franks going to endorse President Bush? "I don't know yet. I'm leaning in that direction." Leaning?

Then he said he hasn't decided whether he'll speak at the Republican National Convention. "I'm a fiercely independent kind of guy and rather proud of it," he said.

Oh, really? Got news for you, soldier. You're going to be in the Big Apple on Sept. 2, according to our GOP draft convention schedule. Let's see, you'll be on the stage at precisely 8:55 p.m., where you'll give 15 minutes of "remarks" praising Bush.

Or maybe you don't want that fine box of Arturo Fuente Opus X cigars they have waiting for you?

Pencil That In

Speaking of the convention, things are, of course, fluid. A bit after Franks's remarks, we're to hear a little speech from former housing secretary Mel R. Martinez. Next to his name is "(Primary?)." Presumably this means no Aug. 31 Senate GOP primary win in Florida, no remarks. After Martinez, there's "Iraqi Scholar, Mrs. Nasreen Mustafa (Minister of Public Works) or any Fulbright Scholar from Iraq."

Moving On

Bryan Cunningham, who helped lead the team prepping national security adviser Condoleezza Rice for the 9/11 hearings, is leaving the National Security Council legal counsel's office this week to move his young family to Denver to open the law firm of Morgan and Cunningham.

Cunningham was a key player in development of the Homeland Security Act, intelligence reform, legal underpinnings of the war on terrorism and the 9/11 commission.

For the Record

The Council on Foreign Relations notes that upset Republicans shouldn't blame new council President Richard N. Haass for a forthcoming series of anti-Bush blasts in its magazine, Foreign Affairs. The magazine's editor, James F. Hoge Jr., is the real culprit.