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Gary Younge
Black rivals line up for historic Senate fight in Lincoln's state

In order to have their grievance tabled and discussed, they needed one senator to support them. The motion fell because not one of the 100 senators, two for each state in the union, was prepared to back them. Not one senator was black.

Come November 3, that will change. For the first time in American history, both the main candidates in a senate race are black. In the election to replace the Republican senator Peter Fitzgerald, of Illinois, the Democrats are fielding Barack Obama, 43. His only gaffe during the Democratic party convention in Boston was to deliver a speech that was so well received that it threatened to overshadow John Kerry's. For the Republicans there is Alan Keyes, 54, an ultra-religious former ambassador to Unesco who stood in 2000 for the Republican presidential nomination.

Given that only two black senators have ever been elected by popular vote, an all-black Senate race in a state that is 73% white is a significant moment. The fact that it should happen in Illinois, which markets itself as the Land of Lincoln, home of the American president credited with freeing the slaves, is greeted with a mixture of pride and feigned indifference.

"Well, it's about time," said DuWayne Thompson, an African American in the downstate town of Joliet. "I don't know if white people have a problem with it. But they shouldn't. We have to choose between two white men for president every time and they don't complain."

Many white people insist that they have barely noticed. "I don't think it's important," says Cathy Harvey, filling up on petrol in the nearby town of Morris. "We've moved on from that now. So long as they can represent the state well, I don't care what colour their skin is."

Winning Illinois demands a tricky political balancing act at the best of times. Demographically, Cook County, home to Chicago and its sprawling suburbs, dominates the state. More than 40% of Illinois' population, and 75% of its African Americans, live in Cook County.

The state is larger than England, but beyond the shadow of Chicago's skyline lies mostly farmland and prairie. Illinois' second biggest city, Rockford, would fit into Chicago 20 times.

So a candidate cannot win Illinois without appealing to the cosmopolitan, more liberal and more diverse city; but they must also engage the more rural, white, socially conservative part of the state.

When Mr Obama, formerly a state senator from Chicago, kicked off his campaign for the Democratic nomination, only about 50 people attended a launch party. "At that stage it wasn't clear that he would even get the African-American vote," said one supporter who attended but did not wish to be named.

On top of that he had a name that rhymed with Osama. Mr Obama used it to connect with crowds, calling himself "the skinny kid with the funny name" and telling the young: "My name is Obama, not Yo Mama."

Mr Obama was in a tight race to represent the Democrats against a wealthier, white candidate, Blair Hull, who spent $29m (£16m) on his campaign and was backed by one of Chicago's most prominent black politicians, the former black panther Bobby Rush.

"At the beginning, a lot of people in the black community didn't think Obama was black enough," says Salim Muwakkil, a contributing editor for the radical magazine In These Times. "He was bi-racial; he was Ivy League and he wasn't from Chicago. White people liked him so much, they didn't really trust him."

Mr Hull's campaign imploded after unsealed divorce papers alleged he had struck his ex-wife and threatened to kill her. Mr Obama romped home, avoiding a runoff with 53% of the vote in the first round.

By June, Mr Obama held a double-digit lead over the Republican challenger Jack Ryan, when Mr Ryan's campaign also collapsed. Previously sealed divorce papers revealed that he had tried to force his ex-wife to go to sex clubs and allow others to watch them have sex. After pressure from state Republicans, Mr Ryan dropped out, leaving them four months from polling day without a candidate.

The Republicans had difficulty finding a contender so late. Then, this month, Mr Keyes said he had "a moral obligation" to run against Mr Obama's record on abortion, gun control and tax.

"Obama has never seen a spending bill he couldn't find some excuse for, and has never seen a tax increase he didn't like," he said.

"We needed to find another Harvard-educated African American who had some experience on the national political scene," the Republican legislator Steven Rauschenberger told the Los Angeles Times. "We need that because the Democrats have made an icon out of Barack Obama. The only way to fight back is to find your own icon, and that is not going to be an easy thing to do."

Critics say the Republicans' choice of Mr Keyes was cynical and tokenistic. "They know they can't win so they are trying to bloody Obama," says Mr Muwakkil.

Others disagree. "Some people think the Republicans were trying to be cute by picking another black guy," says Tom Roeser, a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. "But the white establishment only ever picks one black guy to lead black America at any one time. The Democratic convention was Obama's coronation and now he's being groomed for the presidency. I think Alan wants to make it clear that Obama doesn't represent African Americans and there are more choices out there."

Mr Keyes' brand of religious zealotry, maverick tendencies (last week he embraced reparations for slavery), and theatrical flourishes (he has branded Mr Obama's pro-choice stance as "the slaveowner's position"), does not play well in midwest heartlands. Nor do his Republican affiliation and anti-affirmative action stances please African Americans.

At this stage the race is Mr Obama's to lose. A Chicago Tribune poll on Sunday gave him a 41-point lead, and 96% of the black vote.

Even Mr Keyes' supporters concede that he has very little chance, but hope his candidacy may help shake up a moribund state party.

"I don't think Jack Ryan was going to win either," says Mr Roeser.

"But I think Alan is going to make Obama the issue. And given all the expectations there are now that he might be the first black president, I think Obama is the issue."

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