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Judy Baar Topinka, Barack Obama, Alan Keyes—and voting vegetarian

President Barack Obama on Monday remembered Judy Baar Topinka as “blunt, pragmatic, unfailingly cheerful and energetic.”

The president saw some of that bluntness and pragmatism firsthand, ten years ago, when Topinka presided over a state Republican Party that drafted conservative firebrand Alan Keyes to run against Obama for an Illinois Senate seat.

Topinka’s heart never really seemed like it was in the recruitment effort, moving quickly from welcoming Keyes to grudgingly saying she would vote for him to eventually denouncing some of his comments as “idiotic.”

It was 2004, the year state Sen. Barack Obama would become a household name with his electrifying speech at the Democratic National Convention.

On the GOP side, U.S. Senate nominee Jack Ryan dropped out of the race amidst allegations that he had taken his wife to a sex club. As state Republican chairman, Topinka had the job of finding a replacement.

Even then, she had little bad to say about Obama, although she insisted his election to the U.S. Senate was not inevitable.

“With Barack Obama, I like the man. He’s absolutely a charmer,” she said. “And I’m proud of the fact that the Democrats gave him a starring role at the convention. But we’ve not heard what he’s voted on, what he wants to do, what his vision of America is.”

Unfortunately for Topinka, a parade of potential candidates — including Mike Ditka — opted out of taking up the GOP mantle.

Although Topinka was a moderate, the conservatives that dominated the Republican State Central Committee ultimately became enamored with recruiting Keyes, a former failed GOP presidential candidate who then lived in Maryland.

The pragmatic Topinka didn’t fight it.

“We are looking forward to opening the doors of Illinois and welcoming a new resident,” Topinka told reporters. “We were very impressed with his depth of knowledge. We were very impressed with the fact that he could carry this campaign to our opponent quickly, and tonight we have voted to make him an offer.”

But Topinka’s opinion of Keyes soon became evident.

At that year’s Illinois State Fair in Springfield, she was visibly uncomfortable as Keyes — with a gold crucifix and a likeness of the Ten Commandments around his neck — railed against abortion.

She was cagey about whether she would vote for Keyes over Obama, before finally assuring reporters that she would.

“I’m the party chairman,” she said. “What do you think I’m going to do? Vote vegetarian or something?”

But just weeks later at the 2004 Republican National Convention in September, Topinka had apparently heard enough. She insisted Keyes should apologize for his “idiotic” comment that vice presidential daughter Mary Cheney and all homosexuals are “selfish hedonists.”

All that was forgotten Wednesday as Obama remembered Topinka as “an institution in Illinois politics.”

“Her public service spanned more than 30 years, including her tenure in the State Legislature and as Chair of the Illinois Republican Party,” the president said in a statement issued by the White House.

“Judy was a fierce advocate for her constituents, which I got to see firsthand when she was State Treasurer – the first woman to hold that office. She was blunt, pragmatic, unfailingly cheerful and energetic, and always willing to put politics aside to find commonsense solutions that made a difference for the people of Illinois.”