On his first campaign trip into Illinois farm country, Republican Senate candidate Alan Keyes (search) said Thursday he no longer favors abolishing the U.S. Agriculture Department.

Keyes in 1996 had called the department an "expensive top-heavy bureaucracy that was not actually contributing to the good of the farmers." But he said Thursday things had changed under Republican leadership in Washington and he now favors keeping the department.

Democratic rival state Sen. Barack Obama's (search) campaign called Keyes' statement "a dramatic flip-flop."

Keyes, speaking at Republican Day at the State Fair, also expressed support for tax breaks that encourage development of alternative fuels such as corn-based ethanol.

Keyes initially denied ever saying the Agriculture Department should be combined with other federal agencies. "I am sure that's a misquote," he said.

When pressed on the issue later, Keyes said he had double-checked and now recalled opposing the Agriculture Department when he ran for president in 1996.

Back then, the department imposed too much red tape on farmers and wasted money the government could not afford to spend, he said. He said that had changed under Republican leadership.p

"What's most alarming about Mr. Keyes' dramatic flip-flop is that it took him eight years and a trip to the State Fair to understand how important agriculture is to Illinois," said Obama spokesman Robert Gibbs.

Asked about tax breaks for the ethanol industry, Keyes called it "very important" to encourage development of alternative fuels, especially those that help farmers.

Keyes would not say where he stands on lifting the federal embargo on trade with Cuba, an idea that many farmers support as a way to open a new market for U.S. goods. Keyes said he prefers to focus on trade opportunities in larger, wealthier markets such as China and Japan.

Chuck Spencer, director of national policy issues for the Illinois Farm Bureau, welcomed Keyes' turnaround on abolishing the Agriculture Department. "A number of Illinois farmers rely on the USDA and the services it provides," he said.

Keyes jumped into the Illinois Senate race this month to fill the vacancy created when Republican nominee Jack Ryan dropped out and party leaders could not agree on anyone else as a replacement. The former ambassador moved from Maryland to an apartment in Illinois to qualify as a candidate.