Excluded from S.C. debate, Keyes begins hunger strike Anti-abortion candidate says he won't be silenced

Campaign 1996

March 01, 1996|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Alan L. Keyes, the fiery orator who has built his presidential campaign around his ardent anti-abortion stand, said he was going on a hunger strike yesterday to protest his exclusion from the Republican candidates' debate here.

Mr. Keyes, a former Senate candidate and talk-show host in Maryland, charged that his opponents in the presidential race -- whom he called "gutless jokers" -- and the sponsor of the debate, a private pro-business council in South Carolina, were trying to silence him to drive his "moral agenda" out of the campaign.

He said that, beginning at noon yesterday, he would "abstain from all food and drink until we get fair treatment for this campaign." He encouraged his supporters to join him in the hunger strike.

Mr. Keyes said he would not break his fast until he was invited to participate in subsequent candidate debates. The next debate is Sunday night in Atlanta, and Mr. Keyes is again not among the four leading candidates invited.

"These issues are life-and-death issues for the people of this country," Mr. Keyes said, standing in the lobby of the hotel here where the debate among the top four vote-getters in the Republican race was about to begin. "It's about time somebody laid themselves on the line in a serious way to stop this travesty of a process."

Mr. Keyes has enraptured audiences with his message of restoring the "marriage-based two-parent family" and squashing all abortion rights. But he has failed to win more than minimal support in primaries and caucuses -- he received 1 percent of the vote in Arizona's primary this week -- and has earned only a single delegate, according to the Associated Press.

Even with little support and less money, he said he intends to continue all the way to the Republican convention in August.

"You come from nowhere and start from nothing -- I think we're doing awfully well," he said.

The sponsoring organization, the South Carolina Business & Industry Political Education Committee, invited only the top four contenders -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, businessman Steve Forbes and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander -- to yesterday's debate.

T. Moffatt Burriss, executive vice president of the committee, said his board decided a month ago to limit the debate to the four candidates who were leading after the New Hampshire primary.

"We did it in a fair and equitable manner," Mr. Burriss told Mr. Keyes, who confronted him minutes before the debate.

"I defeated all these guys the last time we got together and debated in New Hampshire, and I'll do it again," Mr. Keyes, who prides himself on his speaking ability, railed at the executive. "And that's probably the reason you and others are manipulating this process to exclude my voice. But it's not going to work."

Bill Nigut, political correspondent for WSB-TV in Atlanta, the sponsor of Sunday's debate, said Mr. Keyes "is an articulate spokesman for his issues, and it must be frustrating for him. It still stands that he has not shown the ability to bring enough votes to make him a realistic contender for the nomination."

Mr. Keyes also attacked the National Right to Life Committee yesterday, charging it with racism for an ad that encouraged people to vote for Mr. Dole or Mr. Buchanan -- both of whom, like Mr. Keyes, oppose abortion rights -- and suggesting that Mr. Keyes was not a major contender for the nomination.

"That's a code word for 'He's black and can't win,' " Mr. Keyes said. "To say that I can't win on some grounds that's not clear is clearly just a code word for race, and I'm getting sick of it."

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