CHICAGO — Right-wing zealot Alan Keyes and Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama, both candidates for this state’s U.S. Senate seat, appeared back-to-back before a panel of community activists and an overflow audience of 1,000 at a debate here Oct. 1.

The crowd was polite and restrained, but clearly favored Obama, the Democrat. One observer said that Keyes “gave a taste of Bush’s ideology unadorned.”

On a range of issues from the destruction of public housing to the crisis in education, Keyes rejected solutions that involved improved funding.

“The cost of medical care is skyrocketing because of bad habits,” Keyes claimed. “People need to learn to eat well and exercise.”

Keyes denied a charge that he had worked for the apartheid regime of South Africa, but conceded that he had worked against funding to fight AIDS in Africa. He explained he opposed programs that involve condom distribution because “you have to work with human sexuality to put it back in line with procreation.”

Keyes also claimed that it “is a lie that the Constitution calls for the separation of church and state.” Rather, the First Amendment was written to allow each state to establish a state religion without congressional interference, he asserted. Keyes would not respond to a reporter’s inquiry as to which religion he would establish in Illinois, where he has been a resident for two months.

In contrast, Obama decried the Bush administration’s cut of $1.8 billion from Section 8 housing, declaring it will cut a quarter-million families from public housing. He favors a health care program that will cover all children, and enabling 55- to 65-year-olds to buy into the Medicare system.

On education, Obama said that the “No Child Left Behind” law “left the money behind. It gave us the strings with no money attached.”

One audience member expressed disappointment that Obama, who had been a speaker at a pre-invasion antiwar rally, had recently been quoted in the press as favoring a possible “preemptive” strike against Iran. The candidate, however, did not retract his statement, insisting that “if we found a nuclear weapon pointed at us we would have to explore all options.”

The predominantly African American audience made this the best-attended debate of this election season. The event was sponsored by the Community Renewal Society, a Chicago faith-based social justice organization associated with the United Church of Christ. Its executive director, Dr. Calvin Morris, told the World that the phones at CRS rang off the hook in the week leading up to the debate.

“It was helpful to have the candidates in a setting where they had to field questions from ordinary people, not just pundits and talking heads,” Morris said.

The author can be reached at rwood@pww.org.

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