Republican Alan L. Keyes found a symbol for his U.S. Senate campaign last week at a housing project for the elderly in Fells Point across the street from the home of his opponent, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Federal housing officials want to close the prayer chapel at Lemko House on South Ann Street. They said they are obliged to preserve the constitutionally mandated separation between church and state. Mr. Keyes had his doubts.
Once again, he said, bureaucratic rigidity was robbing people of their rights, destroying confidence in government. What Americans need -- what liberals such as Senator Mikulski have stolen from them, he says -- is sufficient power to guarantee individual rights and to preserve faith in the future.
"This may look like a little issue," Mr. Keyes said, "but it's not. It's a very big issue. There are so many things where government has to play a role. We need to have community control. We need block grants. But does that mean no prayer, no chapel, no nothing? It's crazy."
The candidate's quick foray into enemy territory was meant to dramatize basic themes of his second run for the U.S. Senate: neighborhood control, "empowerment" of people and a reining in of the "monstrous" central government in Washington.
"If you wanted a meeting of a gay-lesbian pride club, that's OK," Mr. Keyes told a committee of Lemko House residents, because religion is not involved. Prayer, though, is out.
Mr. Keyes is writing a letter to a political friend, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp, asking him to save the chapel. Ms. Mikulski also wants to save it.
Mr. Keyes' chapel visit dramatizes a contradictory undercurrent. By attacking government and incumbency, he is in danger of attacking a national administration run by his own party for the past 12 years.
Mr. Keyes holds that a liberal-run Congress is more to blame for governmental gridlock. But he does not excuse the GOP.
"If there are people in the Republican Party whose interest is served by the maintenance of this huge bureaucratic structure," Mr. Keyes says, "then I'm at odds with them too. I don't mind saying so."
There is not much, apparently, that the fiery candidate has ever minded saying.
A man of great confidence, edging toward arrogance, Mr. Keyes has an oratorical style that is powerful but pugnacious and shrill. His texts are laced with critical references to liberals and to the legacy of slavery in America. The 42-year-old black conservative is the son of a career Army man, and his early years may have been prologue to his eventual career in the foreign service. Born in New York City, he lived in Italy for a time, spent two years at Our Lady of Lourdes School in Baltimore and went to high school in Texas.
Mr. Keyes seems more willing than most politicians to take chances, to think in ways that require radical departure, to challenge voters as well as to court them.
At a luncheon meeting in Elkton, he is asked if reduced government spending on social programs troubles him. The questioner is clearly a fan of these programs.
Mr. Keyes is not.
"I question whether spending money does any good," he says. "Seventy percent of it washes around in the federal bureaucracy. I want to eliminate the middleman and shift money back to the local level."
He would dare, he says, to reduce some entitlement programs, including Social Security. If that seems impolitic, he says, it is only because America and its leaders have lost their way.
"We have to re-examine the country we have become," he says. "Our problems could be addressed if we had representatives with courage to act as if they cared about the future of the country as much as they care about their careers."
In recent years, Alan Keyes has gone to war verbally against an array of adversaries ranging from his party to backers of Anita Hill, the University of Oklahoma law professor who accused Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. Justice Thomas and Mr. Keyes are friends.
When Ms. Hill's defenders insisted they couldn't imagine what incentive she would have to lie about her former boss, Mr. Keyes said he could.
What about a Swiss bank account?
"I was just saying it was a possibility. Anything could have happened, including someone offering to put a little money in a bank account if she would only do X,Y or Z. I didn't say it happened."
Others might have allowed such a speculation to go unspoken. But even when people are agreeing with him, Alan Keyes is pressing his points. ("He can't take 'yes' for an answer," one party member said.)
"He's always enjoyed public argument," says William Kristol, a -- friend of 20 years who is chief aide to Vice President Dan Quayle. "He's a little different from your normal politician who probably thinks first of compromise, avoiding difficult issues, smoothing over difficult problems."