His booming speeches gain only a whisper of public support, but the former ambassador says his social agenda is here to stay

ALAN KEYES starts slowly, in measured cadences. The rhetoric builds, the volume rises. The standing-room-only crowd at the Capital Hilton ballroom hangs on every word of a message decrying abortion and extolling the two-parent family. His wife and three young children join him on stage.

''He's wonderful,'' a convention-goer whispers to her neighbor.

But for the Republican presidential aspirant, speaking at last September's conference of the Christian Coalition, there was one problem with this picture: Most of the attendees' lapel buttons said ''Gramm'' or ''Buchanan,'' not ''Keyes.''

Mr. Keyes is, hands down, the best orator in the crowded Republican field, a Jesse Jackson of the right, only without the rhymes. Keyes says his personal appearances regularly draw crowds in the hundreds and sometimes the thousands.

But surveys of Republican voters consistently show Keyes, the first African-American to run for the Republican presidential nomination, in low single digits. Is there a problem with the message? The messenger? Are there so many conservative Republicans running for president that Keyes is squeezed out? None of the above, he says.

''Those polls are filled with lies; they're phony garbage,'' Keyes charges in an interview. He says supporters have told pollsters they support Alan Keyes, only to be told, ''Keyes isn't on the list.''

Keyes argues that his message is unique. ''Neither Pat [Buchanan] or anyone else is focusing on what matters, and that is the crisis of the marriage-based two-parent family,'' he says. ''The government system and family system have been competing since at least the 1960s, and the family is being destroyed.''

His solution: Scrap the bureaucrat-led welfare system, put churches and community systems back in the forefront, restigmatize single parenthood, and ban abortion. Fathers need to be held responsible for the children they bring into the world - even if it means publicly paddling those who won't pay their fair share.

''Remember that American who broke the law in Singapore?'' Keyes says. ''Seventy to 80 percent of people [in this country] thought caning was a good idea.''

No household name

When Alan Keyes declared his candidacy almost a year ago, his was not a household name. He had run for public office twice - in 1988 and in 1992, both times for the United States Senate from his adopted home state of Maryland. Both times he lost badly to incumbent Democrats in a state dominated by the Democratic Party.

Keyes began his career as a foreign service officer, and was plucked from obscurity by Jeane Kirkpatrick at the US Embassy in India. When Mrs. Kirkpatrick became the US ambassador to the United Nations, she recommended Keyes in 1983 for the US ambassadorship to the UN Economic and Social Council (UNESCO). In 1985, he became US assistant secretary of state for international organizations, making a name for himself as an opponent of economic sanctions against South Africa. After leaving the Reagan administration, he was named president of the lobby group Citizens Against Government Waste. In 1991, he served as interim president of Alabama A&M University in Huntsville. Most recently, Keyes has been host of a radio talk show in Maryland, which at its peak was syndicated in 12 markets. In August, Keyes halted the show to concentrate on his campaign.

Perhaps most striking about Keyes's background is his early awakening as a conservative, unusual for a black teenager in the 1960s who grew up in an Army family of Democrats. At age 16, he argued vocally in favor of the Vietnam War. His rhetorical skills won him the presidency of the American Legion's Boys Nation, the first black to earn that honor.

His college career began at Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., where he studied under the late Allan Bloom, author of ''The Closing of the American Mind.'' Professor Bloom introduced him to political theory, Plato and Aristotle, he says. But it was thinking that made him a conservative, he emphasizes, not any one person.

''Anyone who thinks is a conservative,'' he says. ''Most of the things liberals have advocated haven't worked.''

Keyes spent his sophomore year in Paris, then transferred to Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., where he completed both undergraduate and doctoral degrees in government. The Harvard pedigree, which Keyes wears proudly, adds to his complex identity as a would-be leader in the conservative pro-family movement, where being a Harvard grad can be more of a stigma than a plus.

While at Harvard, ''I was a hawk on Vietnam; I ruined many a dinner party,'' he says. But ''it proves the age of miracles hasn't passed. One can emerge from Harvard a conservative.''

In fact, he attended Harvard with William Kristol, a conservative strategist in Washington who managed Keyes's first run for the Senate. During this election cycle, Mr. Kristol hoped out loud that another black Republican, Gen. Colin Powell, would run for president.

Shoestring budget

The beauty of the Keyes campaign, says deputy campaign manager Dan Godzich, is that it's running on a shoestring. While other conservative candidates, like Gramm, are running expensive campaigns with chartered planes and big media buys, Keyes is marshalling his pennies and relying on his ''best resource'' - people. He says he's raised about $1 million so far, and is supporting his family on speech honoraria.

During his last Senate campaign, Keyes got into some hot water with voters by paying himself an $8,500-a-month salary out of campaign funds. This time, says Mr. Godzich, Keyes is not paying himself a salary.

The most important thing, Godzich adds, is to keep Keyes in the race and to keep his message ''out there.'' Keyes is the only candidate holding the others' feet to the fire on abortion, he says. ''By staying in the race, Alan's in a position where lightning can strike.''

''If Lamar [Alexander] and [Phil] Gramm don't come in second in Iowa or New Hampshire, their campaigns are over,'' says Godzich. ''They'll be out of money.... If it's down to [Bob] Dole, [Steve] Forbes, and Alan, and Alan's the only conservative left, then we're in a good position. Somebody can always stumble.''

Keyes has received no major endorsements of his candidacy, but he did get some help from James Dobson, head of an influential Christian organization based in Colorado Springs called Focus on the Family.

Mr. Dobson was so moved by a Keyes speech, he broadcast parts of it twice on his own syndicated radio show.

Keyes's campaign brochure sports a highlighted quote from Dobson: ''Your perspective is the closest thing I've heard on a national level to God's own truth for our day!''

Moderate Republicans see Keyes's campaign as merely a vehicle for self-promotion. ''He's a pundit, and he wants to be a player,'' says Rich Tafel, executive director of the Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP faction that supports homosexual rights. ''He's running for his radio show.''

But no one disagrees that Keyes is a forceful orator with an abundance of self-confidence. ''People come up to me and say, 'I'm going to vote for Gramm, but I'm for you in my heart,' '' Keyes says. ''I know I am the heart choice of the majority of the Republican Party.''

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