Both candidates to become United States Senator from Illinois are black, but the issues involved range far beyond race. Republican Alan Keyes and Democrat Barack Obama are at opposite ends of the political spectrum on everything from abortion to taxes, gun control, environmentalism and labor unions.
The outcome of the election, however, may not depend on these issues but on whether image and rhetoric carry more weight than issues. The outcome can also depend on whether the Republicans back Alan Keyes with as much money as the Democrats spend backing Barack Obama.
Obama made a big splash as the keynote speaker at the recent Democratic convention, and the powers that be in the Democratic Party obviously see him as potentially a rising star. While Democrats are quick to accuse Republicans of tokenism whenever they put someone black in any prominent position, it is hard to imagine that an obscure member of the Illinois legislature would have been featured at a national convention if he were white.
Alan Keyes has had far more experience at the national and international level. After serving overseas as a foreign service officer, he rose within the State Department to become Assistant Secretary of State during the Reagan administration.
What Alan Keyes has become best known for, however, have been his staunchly conservative views on the family, military defense, and other conservative causes. He has been part of the conservative movement since his teenage years.
Keyes is a dynamic speaker whose confrontational style and strong rhetoric have turned off some people, even as they have inspired others. Barack Obama has cultivated a much smoother, moderate-sounding style. But his track record shows him to be at least as far to the left as Alan Keyes is to the right.
An environmentalist movement group has given Obama its highest rating for his votes their way as a state legislator in Illinois. Obama has supported tax increases in Illinois and opposed tax cuts nationally. He supports partial-birth abortion, which is anathema to conservatives like Keyes, and which gives pause even to some liberals who support abortion in general.
If Barack Obama's strongest suit is his rhetoric and his image, his greatest vulnerability is his actual voting record and his speeches against the war in Iraq. Neither gets featured in Obama's campaign material. He is a stealth candidate.
It will take money and lots of it to bring out the facts about Barack Obama's track record, and the media will undoubtedly criticize a "negative" campaign being waged against him. But the mainstream media can hardly be expected to bring the facts to the public's attention, since journalists are ideologically much closer to Obama than to Keyes.
At stake is not only a much-needed U.S. Senate seat but the future ability of the Republican Party to attract and keep black candidates and voters. That is unlikely to happen if black candidates simply get sent out on suicide missions.
This year, the voters in Illinois will have a very clear choice between a liberal and a conservative when they choose who will represent them in the U.S. Senate. So will voters nationally when it comes to the Presidential election.
"Liberal" and "conservative" are not just arbitrary labels. Liberals and conservatives base themselves on opposite assumptions -- conflicting visions of the world as it is, and of what they think the world should be. The net result is that they disagree on issue after issue across the board.
The question then is what each voter wants: More military spending? More welfare state spending? Gay marriage? Higher taxes? Bans against oil drilling? School vouchers? Judges who put criminals behind bars or judges who give suspended sentences and "community service"?
Whatever each voter wants, the candidates have such different track records that the voters' choices should be easy to make this year, both in Illinois and nationwide in the Presidential election -- if people vote on the basis of issues.
Too many people, however, vote on the basis of image, emotion, and rhetoric, which means that anything can happen, both at the polls this November and to our country in the years ahead.