Alan L. Keyes has friends who believe that defeat is the best preparation for victory, and thus see Mr. Keyes as well-prepared for a run for the presidency.
They say they are convinced that the twice-trounced Republican Maryland senatorial candidate can run successfully for the presidency, or at least win his party's nomination, in 1996.
This is a view not widely held by people knowledgeable about Republican politics.
"He's not exactly a nationally known Republican leader," said Bob Heckman, chairman of the Fund for a Conservative Majority, a political action committee. "I think it is difficult to run for president from such a small base, and I don't know what his base would be."
Actually, by most assessments, Mr. Keyes doesn't have one. He lives in Montgomery County and in 1988 and 1992, as the Republican senatorial candidate, he lost, successively, to the Democratic incumbents, Sens. Paul S. Sarbanes and Barbara A. Mikulski.
During the 1988 race, he received a small amount of money from Mr. Heckman's political action committee. In the 1992 race, he complained of a lack of support from the Republican Party.
His complaints, not to mention his behavior, left a bad taste with many Republicans.
"In the last campaign [against Ms. Mikulski], he used $8,000 a month of his campaign money, donations, to pay for his mortgage," said Allan Levey, the state Republican chairman from 1979 to 1986.
Mr. Keyes came under fire in 1992 for giving himself a salary during the election campaign but defended his decision as reasonable, since he had given up a lucrative job to run.
Asked about a possible Keyes run for the Republican nomination, Mr. Levey said, "I think this shows that in the United States of America, anybody can run for president."
Mr. Keyes acknowledged that "the impetus for this does not come from Maryland."
"It comes from people outside. They have gotten me thinking about it harder than I thought I would," he said.
"The field of [Republican] candidates out there is not the most inspiring. Someone should step into that vacuum to articulate Republican principles in a way that would move people's hearts."
So far, said the former foreign service officer, he has not decided to commit himself despite the urgings from his fans outside Maryland.
Mr. Keyes is host of a talk show on WCBM radio in Baltimore, on which he comments on issues related to social and racial problems and politics.
He writes books (his latest is "Masters of the Dream: The Strength and Betrayal of Black America"), and at every %o opportunity articulates his conservative philosophy. He urges a national moral regeneration. He calls for a renewed commitment to the nuclear family.
Bill Frenzel, a Republican former congressman and guest scholar at the Brookings Institute who studies politics, said, "The scope of difficulty before Mr. Keyes is quite large. He starts from a low visibility point."
Even among other African-Americans, the prospect of Mr. Keyes' candidacy does not generate great expectation, or even attention. A fellow talk-show host suggested his purposes might be ulterior, and considerably smaller.
"Let's deal in realities," said Joe Madison, a member of the national NAACP board of directors who is on the air in Washington five days a week. "Maybe this is nothing more than (( an attempt to get ratings for his talk show."
He added: "Alan Keyes has never held a leadership position in the African-American community. I don't think Alan Keyes is going to get much support from African-Americans. And I'm not sure white Republicans are prepared to nominate a black American."
One does not find the same degree of pessimism on the Friends of Alan Keyes Committee in Atlanta. It was established about a month ago by John Knox, a reward for Mr. Keyes' help in Mr. Knox's failed campaign for governor last year.
Art Rocker, the finance director for a prospective national Alan Keyes presidential campaign, said the committee was encouraged by the results of a straw poll conducted last Saturday by delegates to the state Republican Party in Louisiana.
Mr. Keyes shared fourth place with Jack F. Kemp, behind Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, Patrick J. Buchanan and former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander.
Straw polls generally are not regarded as reliable indicators by political professionals, especially not at this stage in a political season.
But Mr. Rocker sees the Louisiana straw vote as a Keyes boomlet. To keep the momentum going, he said, the committee opened a new office in Houston, and will soon expand into Baton Rouge.
The committee has turned its attention to straw polls by GOP workers in Arizona this month, and another in South Carolina. Pro-Keyes forces hope to make their presence felt in both places.
The Friends of Alan Keyes Committee is also raising money. "We're anticipating we can put together 10 to 15 million dollars by April, if Alan makes his decision by March or April," Mr. Rocker said, adding, "This is going to be a grass-roots effort."
The target constituency, in keeping with Mr. Keyes' emphasis on the breakdown of morality in America, would be conservative Christians, African-Americans and anti-abortion advocates.
And should the Republican establishment again turn its back on Mr. Keyes, as he complained it did in his 1992 campaign?
"If the Republican establishment denies him," Mr. Rocker said, "they are really denying any potential of having black Americans come into the party."