Conservative heart, soul make Keyes tick
Though some felt lifted by a speech extolling the virtues of inclusion, Keyes bristled at Democratic principles he believes have failed America for decades. As the buzz over Obama grew in the days after that speech, Keyes began to see an opportunity for Republicans to attack those Democratic beliefs.
Speaking to the Illinois Republican State Central Committee in a small conference room of Chicago's Union League Club last week, Keyes explained all this and said that Obama's speech was part of the reason he came before the group as it decided who would run against the Democrat in November.
By the end of the night Wednesday, the group had selected Keyes, who is expected on Sunday to officially accept the challenge he heard in Obama's rhetoric.
Keyes "said [he has] read enough about him to know that speech was very typical of Democratic candidates who vote way to the left and then try to run to the middle," said state Sen. Dave Syverson of Rockford, the committee member who pushed for Keyes' nomination.
Keyes, who lives in Maryland, will announce his final decision at a 2 p.m. Sunday rally of supporters in Arlington Heights. GOP officials said Keyes assured them last week that he would accept.
Some see Keyes' entry into the Senate race as an opportunist's play for publicity. His close supporters and longtime friends say Keyes may be opportunistic, but his deeper motivations lie in his yearning to spread his conservative message in a closely watched Senate race.
"His heart and soul motivate him," said his longtime friend and chief of staff, Mary Parker Lewis, whose husband was a graduate student with Keyes at Harvard. "For somebody of his capability, his ambition is a classical ambition. It is not a modern advancement of his personality or his career path."
"He's a strong conservative," said Harvey Mansfield, Keyes' Harvard adviser. "If he were a man dominated by personal ambition, he would have been a liberal or at least a moderate, because he would have made his way up more easily, because most blacks side with the Democratic Party."
Keyes, a former radio and cable-TV talk show host who turned 54 on Saturday, is known for his rousing speaking style steeped in Christian moral philosophy.
He is often denounced by Democrats and dismissed in media reports as an uncompromising abortion foe whose emphasis on the Judeo-Christian roots of the United States Constitution puts him outside the mainstream.
Keyes has only been a loser in politics--he was defeated twice in races for the U.S. Senate seat from Maryland and also mounted two quixotic runs for president, in 1996 and 2000.
Nonetheless, he has a built-in base in the Christian right and among other conservatives who share his sometimes dire assessment of the state of American mores--and the American Republic.
"I don't believe that America ends up as some mediocrity in history," Keyes said in April at a Dallas rally backing the display of the 10 Commandments in public buildings. "We are either going to be a force for great good, as we have seen, or a force for great evil, as we must become if we do not succeed in mobilizing those forces who mean to stand up against those who have declared implacable war upon God in our public life."
A standout student
Keyes entered politics after years of scholarship and government service. The son of a soldier, Keyes grew up on military bases as a bookish boy who early on learned the power of public speaking.
In the 1960s, while his father was stationed at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Keyes enrolled in Robert G. Cole High School. He became a standout debater, was selected for the National Honor Society and was ultimately elected president of Boys Nation. That election earned him the chance in 1967 to meet President Lyndon Johnson at the White House and speak before the American Legion state convention in Dallas--where he was enthusiastically received, even though his race put off some in the audience.
In past interviews, Keyes has said that early on he spurned sports to read books on government and philosophy. After starting college at Cornell University, he met classical scholar Allan Bloom, whom Keyes described in a 1999 interview with C-SPAN as "the most important teacher I had."
Already on the way to becoming a conservative, Keyes left Cornell after Vietnam War protests there and enrolled at Harvard, where he met many who now travel in the same conservative circles as he. At Harvard, he earned both a bachelor's and a PhD, writing his dissertation on the early writings of Alexander Hamilton.