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.
Keyes calls Obama a "danger."
Putting together a campaign organization with the help of a few Washington hands and a loyal band of aides drawn to his stern moral code and a familiar spirit of insurgency, Keyes found an apartment in Calumet City and ditched the running clothes in favor of business suits.
He has no money to spend on television ads and he has no realistic hope of defeating Obama, but that does not mean he cannot summon a prayer. During a two-day swing from Rockford to Union, Lincoln, Bloomington and Springfield, Christianity figured prominently in his remarks.
Never more so than in Lincoln, where he advised a youthful audience watching from the Lincoln College bleachers to make "godly choices." His first applause line of the day came when he said the Constitution does not demand the separation of church and state. He warned of a "dictatorship of the judges."
"If there are no godly choices, be a godly choice," Keyes said. "By preaching the Gospel, we can transform the nation."
The night before, standing before a cheering crowd of 300 at the Rockford airport, Keyes reveled in chants of "A-lan Keyes! A-lan Keyes! A-lan Keyes!" and affirming calls of "That's right!" The audience devoured Keyes's red-meat talk.
After a riff dismissing Obama as a product of a political clique, the first issue Keyes turned to was abortion. The second was same-sex marriage. The third was gun ownership and the Second Amendment. The fourth was the federal income tax, which Keyes wants to abolish.
Debbie Dammann, from nearby Loves Park, was in heaven. She said Keyes was striding down the same path as President Bush.
"They stand for Christian leadership and putting down the disgusting rights of queers. It's going to be a great day when they shoot that down," Dammann said. Another admirer, lawyer Bernard Reese, said he likes Keyes because his opinions are "grounded in reason."
Keyes seems happiest on a soapbox, with a microphone at his lips and a raft of sins to expose. If God or fate has delivered him an opportunity to rouse his constituents on the Republican right this election season, he is happy to seize the time.
Winning is a relative term to Keyes -- but that provides little solace for Illinois Republicans, who once had visions of retaining control of the seat held by Peter G. Fitzgerald, who is retiring.
Judy Baar Topinka, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party and a moderate, called Keyes's comment about Mary Cheney "idiotic." A Republican strategist closely following the campaign said Keyes is proving that "it takes a moderate to win in this state."
"Alan Keyes hasn't done anything to help the party," the strategist said. "He's more or less come to Illinois to further Alan Keyes's agenda. What that is, nobody can really tell. He's certainly not talking about issues that are important to Illinoisans."
But Keyes does not think he is the problem. He speaks of Illinois Republicans the way Ralph Nader spoke of Al Gore and the Democratic Party after the 2000 election.
"What ails them is a lack of integrity," Keyes said. "On issue after issue they've blurred the choice, and in the end I think they've sacrificed the moral culture of Republicanism."
The beating heart of Illinois Republicanism lies on the right, Keyes contends. He believes the answer to what ails the party is to energize the portion that will turn out for what he considers a true conservative.
Opinion surveys show that voters who fit Keyes's political and cultural profile are not nearly numerous enough to control an election in Illinois. Keyes is not much for polls, in any case, given that the most recent ones show him getting less than 20 percent of the vote, with Obama 40 to 50 points ahead.
Obama has dismissed Keyes as being ill-versed and out of touch. "What Mr. Keyes has done is try to bring all of his opinions into Illinois, regardless of the fact he has changed home states," said Robert Gibbs, Obama's communications director. "People don't have a sense that he is talking about all of their problems. He goes to a nursing forum and talks about the separation of church and state."
Keyes is dismissive of his critics and of polling numbers pointing to an Obama landslide and says that polls should be banned 45 days before an election. He would settle for a sounding of the sort the Rockford airport crowd delivered.
"I feel the nation's terribly ill and God's the cure and they won't allow Him in," said Bernard Paul, 73, a retired service manager. Keyes "says the truth according to Scripture, but that's not in today. He really doesn't go for that political correctness.
"I really like that."