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Keyes stakes presidential bid on moral wake-up call

Two-time contender Alan Keyes rails against abortion - and America's

By James N. ThurmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 2, 1999


Don't ask Alan Keyes, two-time candidate for the presidency, why his message isn't catching on - unless you want a really long answer.

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You'll likely be peppered by an attack on the question itself - why it has no factual basis, why it's racist, and how he can't believe after all these years reporters still get away with asking it.

After years spent on the outer edge of the spotlight, first as a Reagan administration official and then as a Republican presidential candidate, it's true Mr. Keyes is not at the very bottom. He's doing better this cycle than Angel Joy Chavis Rocker and Sam Berry, and even the better-known Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah.

Despite his long-shot status, the optimistic Keyes is steely in his conviction that he'd be a strong moral leader and a great president.

And if you think Arizona Sen. John McCain has a temper, tread lightly around Keyes, particularly concerning questions about the viability of his candidacy.

"I get overwhelmingly positive response [with in-person campaigning]," he said during an early-morning phone conversation. "I don't know why you ask a question like that. It's racist stereotyping; it's not right. It's a definite form of racism."

Make no mistake, the Harvard PhD's fiery words are not uncontrolled, born of a struggling campaign. Rather, his anger - like his public-speaking style - seems considered and measured.

Indeed, Keyes's mastery of oratory now allows him to make much of his living on the speaker's circuit. Like other motivational speakers, such as Zig Ziglar and Jesse Jackson, Keyes is commanding in his ability to address a crowd - either in person or via his now-ended radio broadcast, "The Alan Keyes Show: America's Wake Up Call."

His speeches usually begin softly, forcing listeners to lean forward to hear. Then he slowly turns up the volume until it reaches the level of a Baptist tent revivalist, searing his words into the ears of his audience.

Defining right from wrong

The impassioned message he delivers is an absolutist mantra: anti-abortion, anti-homosexuality, and pro-family values. But for all his eloquence, detractors say, that unyielding stance is the fundamental reason he just isn't catching on.

"American politics is not about absolute things; it's about persuading people to compromise so you get the maximum number of people," says Michael Birkner, a professor at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. "The only politician to have been successful with strong ideology was Reagan, but when pressed hard he was fundamentally a rhetorical absolutist - but practically [he] was not."

The anti-abortion plank

For Keyes, ending abortion is the supporting beam of his entire campaign. As a matter of political compromise, he says he would allow abortion in cases of rape or incest - even though he believes it's a sin under any circumstance.

"If your father commits rape, does that give me the right to kill you? It is so egregiously unjust," he says of the consequences to the unborn in that case.

But this time around, Keyes has diversified his message to include a pinwheel of other socially and fiscally conservative positions.

He advocates eliminating not only the budget deficit but also all of the more than $3 trillion in debt the US owes. When it comes to campaign-finance overhaul, he suggests that all limits on contributions be eliminated but that candidates disclose far more about contributors, a view held by many of the GOP presidential candidates (Senator McCain excepted). He's against gun control, doctor-assisted suicide, and sex education in public schools.

So far, though, that expanded message has not caught on among contributors. As of early November, Keyes had $134,115 on hand, having spent $718,528 so far this year - scarcely the amount major candidates pay for rent or to pollsters. He is $82,794 in debt.