Iowa's subtext

Act I, Scene II. Enter the newly proclaimed Gore juggernaut, followed closely by the happy but slightly concerned Bush campaign, the ebulliently robotic Forbes machine, and the suddenly chastened Bradley team. Exeunt Orrin Hatch. Study these characters and plot lines from Iowa well - they'll be valid for the next four days or so. After New Hampshire, the show will almost certainly take another turn.

Scenes from next week's episode: Al Gore maintains control, Bill Bradley discovers faint signs of life, George W. gets a scare when a new character from Arizona makes his entrance, and Steve Forbes learns that his moment in the sun has set.

It's all about as predictable as your average Steven Segal movie ... and then you notice Alan Keyes. Can anyone explain how the GOP's United Nations-fearing, WTO-loathing, traveling-medicine-show of a candidate garnered 14 percent of the vote? Mr. Forbes got the votes he paid for, and everyone knew Mr. Hatch, with the star power of your average piece of particleboard, would soon falter. But Mr. Keyes even beat the Christian right's Gary Bauer, who seemed tailor-made for Monday's Iowa caucus.

Here in Washington, we woke up to an unexpected blizzard Tuesday and wondered what happened. Then we checked the paper, learned of Keyes's showing, and quickly surmised that hell had frozen over. As easy as it is to poke fun at Keyes - and it is very easy - you can't help feeling his Iowa minivictory may actually be about something.

It's tempting to write Keyes's 14 percent off to his oratorical skill. No one in this crowd of candidates - and few anywhere - can match his ability to raise the roof with words. His speeches, even his 60-second debate flourishes, have the flair of little sermonettes. He can pay tribute to the oddest ideas with the self-assured cadence of a good minister.

It may be, however, that trapped somewhere in Keyes's oddball collection of misguided ideas is a nugget that rings true. At the beginning of the 21st century, America is in some ways confused. Yes, the economy is purring along and crime is down, but when Keyes rails against people basing their votes simply on their economic condition he has a point - though he does it while advocating the abolition of the IRS. We read of all the exciting benefits the AOL-Time Warner merger may bring, but few focus on the limits such a massive media company may bring to consumer choice. And as the stock market climbs, we talk of the wealth it creates but forget the millions who have nothing in it.

And this has left some people with the not completely unjustified feeling that we're confusing capitalism with democracy, believing that what's good for the markets is good for society. This is the populist backlash that helped spawn the Reform Party, that made Ross Perot and Jessie Ventura into serious politicians - OK semi-serious. And Keyes offers something more: He not only claims to speak the "truth," he preaches it like gospel.

If, however, the beginning of the 21st century turns out to be a lot like the beginning of the 20th - that is if the next 15 years are marked by more Microsoft breakup rulings than by AOL merger announcements - don't expect Keyes to be Teddy Roosevelt. The GOP does need a reformer to come in and redefine what the party stands for, but Keyes will not be that man.

If he has any historic corollary it is William Jennings Bryan, the 19th century populist who stood against the business interests and spoke about America worshipping at a "Cross of Gold." Bryant touched on something that resonated with voters and he knew how to speak, but his confused positions and religious fervor scared off voters. Sound familiar?

Today, Keyes is scheduled to speak to the New Hampshire state legislature. This should be his moment to shine, but don't expect his philosophy, such as it is, to be a hit in skeptical New England. He'll finish next week where he is destined to finish for the rest of his run: near the bottom of the pack.

Today's surprise, tomorrow's footnote.

*Dante Chinni writes political commentary for the Monitor from Washington.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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