Since most of you probably had higher priorities last Thursday night than catching the debate between Barack Obama and Alan Keyes (like watching the St. Louis Cardinals win the National League pennant) I figured I’d do my civic duty and tell you what I saw.

Thursday’s debate was the second time the two men had faced each other. The first Obama-Keyes debate was broadcast on radio a couple of weeks ago. I thought Keyes won that debate. It was not a great night for Obama, to say the least. He displayed almost none of the spark he showed at the Democratic National Convention last summer and he never laid a glove on Keyes.

Several of Obama’s advisors privately admitted disappointment with their guy’s performance in that radio debate, when Obama stuttered and stumbled his way through the hour and allowed Keyes to present himself as an almost normal candidate. Obama, they explained, had expected Keyes to act like a raving lunatic, and when he didn’t Obama’s whole game plan was thrown off and he never really


By Thursday, Obama still had a maddening problem with the non-word "um" popping up in just about every sentence, but he didn’t wait for Keyes to self-destruct. Instead, he went after Keyes over and over again. launching his first real public criticisms of the bizarre out-of-state Republican.

In almost every response to almost every question, Obama included at least some criticism of Keyes. Right off the bat, Obama warned any voters who might be watching that Keyes was a man on a, "moral crusade," who, "labels those who disagree with him as ‘sinners.’"

Obama chastised Keyes for calling people who supported abortion rights "terrorists." He asked Keyes why he wanted to repeal the Constitution’s 17th Amendment, which allows citizens to directly vote for senators (a Keyes position which reportedly tests worse with focus groups than almost anything else Keyes believes).

"I don’t need Mr. Keyes lecturing me about Christianity," Obama cracked, after Keyes had delivered a long lecture about Christianity.

Keyes, for his part, rarely failed to disappoint his many detractors. His weird, herky-jerk hand gestures, invisible during the radio debate, and his overtly patronizing manner, subdued the week before, emphasized for spectators that the pompous river of moralizing invective flowing from his mouth wasn’t even close to the Illinois mainstream.

I deducted several style points from Keyes for saying, "In point of fact," what seemed like a hundred times, often when he was either brutally mangling the facts or almost breaking his arm by patting himself on the back. He ostentatiously played the victim far too often, sternly claiming that he was being misquoted, or that reporters were out to get him with a, "scurrilous unfairness."

Hardly. As most of us in the news business have figured out by now, Alan Keyes does more damage to himself than we ever could.

Keyes’ nearly messianic self-confidence was almost fully on display Thursday night. He repeatedly attempted to demonstrate that both his intellect and his virtue were far superior to Obama’s, whom he tried to paint as willfully ignorant of history, morality and the constitution. Mostly, though, I thought Keyes made himself look ridiculous. The Marylander’s attempts at using logic traps mostly failed because his underlying facts were so often wrong, and his harshest accusations were, for the most part, easily batted away.

Keyes’ radical fundamentalism was also out in force. Those who support gay rights, he thundered, had an ultimate goal of, "persecution of our Christian citizens under the law for believing in what the Scripture tells them is true."

He really let loose when responding to a question about his infamous declaration that Jesus Christ wouldn’t vote for Obama. "To say I don’t have the right to do that," Keyes protested, "means that you’re trying to suggest that my faith-shaped conscience has no place in our politics." He later added that Obama, "ought to be examined carefully by people of Christian conscience."

"I’m not running to be the minister of Illinois, I’m running to be its United States Senator," Obama deadpanned, coining the night’s most memorable phrase, and one that will likely resonate for years to come in this state as the religious Right attempts to build on the experience and contacts gained from this Keyes campaign.

Make no mistake. Keyes will be leaving soon, but the true believers around him will be with us for a long time to come.


Rich Miller also publishes Capitol Fax, a daily political newsletter. He can be reached at