Keyes stirs a devoted following with oratory GOP candidate decries abortion, moral decay on shoestring campaign

February 10, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Just watching Alan Keyes before a crowd, you might think he was conducting the New York Philharmonic. His hands are everywhere -- circling, pointing, punctuating a voice that is as rich and rousing as a symphony orchestra.

But what the former diplomat, Maryland senatorial candidate and radio talk show host has been conducting is a shoestring presidential campaign. It is one with little money and even less chance of success, but with a solid, if small, following that is

passionately devoted to Mr. Keyes' message of personal responsibility, strong family values and curbs on abortions -- and the power of his persona.

Indeed, among a slate of Republican presidential candidates who have been called "charisma-challenged," Mr. Keyes, 45, is an oratorical standout -- a fireworks display compared with Steve Forbes' flickering Bunsen burner.

Fiercely conservative, Mr. Keyes delivers a stirring message about the need to restore the "marriage-based, two-parent family" -- more a sermon than a political stump speech -- that resonates with religious conservatives.

PD He rails against "the winds of moral decay" and "the darkness of

a depravity that is destroying lives." And he calls his political rivals "a bunch of money-obsessed people."

"All they want to talk about in some form or another is money," he said yesterday, speaking before several hundred students and a few dozen parents at the Des Moines Christian School.

"And they have come to the conclusion that the only thing this country needs is, somehow or another, to get the money thing right. Then everything will be OK," he said.

Rather than money and taxes, he says, America should focus on moral goals and its relationship with God. "The country can only stand if it stands firmly on its solid, moral ground," he said.

It is enough to evoke applause and quiet whispers of "Amen" from the fervent crowds he draws throughout the state. And it is enough to keep a small core of Republican voters deeply committed to him even though there is little chance that he will get within shouting distance of the Republican nomination.

In a recent poll of 507 likely Iowa caucus-goers by a TV station here, Mr. Keyes received 6 percent, 4 points ahead of Sen. Richard G. Lugar and, surprisingly, only 2 points below Phil Gramm, who has campaigned in this state for more than a year and has spent handsomely.

Although Mr. Keyes finished last in the Louisiana caucuses earlier this week, behind Patrick J. Buchanan and Mr. Gramm -- the only two others who competed -- there is little chance that his supporters will defect, says Mr. Keyes' state director, Gaius Ives.

"Our people are rabid," Mr. Ives said. "They don't think like that."

Typical is Dan Henderson, a social studies teacher at the Des Moines Christian School who says his "mouth dropped" when he saw Mr. Keyes on C-SPAN giving his announcement speech last year.

"I came up out of my chair," Mr. Henderson recalled, "and I said: 'Thank you, Lord. There is a man running who has a Christian world view and someone who's going to stand for what's right.' "

Mary Carbone, like many in the crowd yesterday, says it is Mr. Keyes' vehement anti-abortion message that attracts her. Indeed, for Mr. Keyes, a Roman Catholic and father of three, abortion is society's scourge, "the one, single issue that epitomizes the corrupt concept of freedom more than any other," he bellows.

He's been accused by fellow Republicans, he says, of talking too much about abortion.

"They'd like me to shut up," he said, beginning an angry lecture. "And I happen to believe there had been a little agreement among Republicans that we were going to shut up about abortion because some people believe we could only win if we shut up about abortion. I frankly don't care if we win that way, because if we win that way, America will lose."

He also takes a jab at Mr. Forbes, who has said he believes it is senseless to impose tighter restrictions on abortions without widespread public support for those changes.

"In the '60s, we had a word for this approach," said Mr. Keyes. "It was called a 'copout' "

Few subjects are as clear-cut to him as abortion, but Mr. Keyes speaks out about others, too -- from school prayer to capital punishment.

He told the Christian School crowd that just yesterday a waitress who was serving him at a Shoney's restaurant gave him an idea for welfare reform: provide shelter and food but no cash for jobless women and their children.

"I sat there and I thought, that's actually brilliant," he said. "I haven't seen any experts come up with a good idea like that."

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