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.
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.
Keyes's candidacy is fueled by his belief that an attitude of permissiveness and a relaxing of societal standards are destroying the American family. These trends, he says, are producing a moral anxiety in America - one that good economic times cannot alleviate.
"If we don't have the ability to establish standards, it's destructive," Keyes says, who is a devout Roman Catholic. He cites homosexuality as an example. "If we can't say homosexuality is wrong," he asks, what about sexual exploitation of children or adulterous marriages?
To reverse what he sees as America's moral slide, Keyes would use the power of the presidential bully pulpit, lean on Hollywood about the content of movies and music, and revise government aid programs that he says encourage irresponsibility. He'd revive the debate over prayer in schools, and, of course, screen nominees for the US Supreme Court according to their views on abortion.
Keyes's anti-abortion message worked to some extent in his 1996 campaign. But this time, with a "new pragmatism" in the Republican field, his continuing emphasis on this issue makes him appealing to a smaller group - even within the most conservative of the fundamentalist voter blocs.
He came in seventh in the Iowa straw poll in August, while Gary Bauer, who is vying with him for the far right wing of the GOP, came in second.
Not only are candidates like Mr. Bauer, Steve Forbes, and Pat Buchanan vehemently anti-abortion, they have wider platforms that attract more voters.
"The problem with Keyes is he has to share his platform ... with others, and one really begins to wonder how long he can keep going," says Ryan Barilleaux, a political scientist at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.
In addition to his candidacy in 1996, Keyes ran twice for a US Senate seat in Maryland, in 1988 and 1992.
He made those bids coming out of a stint in the Reagan administration, where he put his doctoral degree in government to use as US ambassador to the UN Social and Economic Council. He also served as an assistant secretary of State for international organization.
Keyes is notably lighter when discussing his personal habits and lifestyle. An admitted product of the TV generation, he watches a variety of programming, including all of the "Star Trek" spin-offs.
A struggle to be 'known'
Despite his high-level government experience, Keyes has failed so far to produce a statistically meaningful following.
"His primary constituency is that small segment of the Republican Party and an even smaller segment of the population who believe abortion is immoral," says Emmett Buell Jr., a political scientist at Denison University in Granville, Ohio.
Keyes blames the media for that - and sees racism behind their noncoverage.
Many political analysts, however, see it differently. "Morrie Taylor [the Independent Party candidate in 1996] got virtually no coverage. It's not that Keyes is black; it's that he's not viable," says Mr. Buell, who followed Keyes during the '96 election cycle.
Buell has come to the conclusion that no matter how low a candidate's poll numbers, he can stay in the race if he's committed.
"This is a phenomenon that our politics has cast up today: Unless you get absolutely crushed, you have this long primary in which you can pretend to be a candidate," Buell says.
But without media attention, suggest those who've been in Keyes's position, life on the campaign trail is like sailing a ship with no wind.
"He's got to get free media or his goose in not just cooked, it's overdone," says John Anderson, who defected from the Republican Party in 1980 to wage an independent presidential campaign. Mr. Anderson enjoyed a wealth of free media after his surprisingly strong showing in the Iowa caucuses that year.
"I don't discredit him for his message or his sincerity. He has every right to get out and do what he's doing," says Anderson. "People who feel very strongly are sustained by the beliefs they espouse."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society