Keyes' blazing oratory draws crowds in Iowa

Appeals for morality, against abortion attracts far right

January 15, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

COUNCIL BLUFFS, Iowa -- When Alan Keyes envisions the future, it comes off sounding like a creepy science fiction movie. "Science will create subjects who will not even know they are oppressed," he says, describing a world where the powerful could manipulate genetics to create better soldiers and other programmed drones.

Perhaps the only thing scarier than the future in the world of Alan Keyes is the present, where, in his view, the government has robbed its citizens of their freedoms and chased morality into a dark corner.

A former Baltimore talk show host and two-time Republican presidential candidate, Keyes is again calling for more God and less government, which appeals to far-right voters here who are packing meeting halls to listen, cheer and offer the occasional "amen."

In part because of the nationally televised debates, where Keyes' blazing conservative oratory has won him greater name recognition than ever, the former Reagan administration diplomat jumped from fifth to third in a recent Des Moines Register poll of Iowans who plan to vote in GOP caucuses this month. Keyes -- who went on a four-day hunger strike after being left out of a 1996 campaign debate -- is finally getting heard.

Keyes has never held elective office -- the Gaithersburg resident ran for a Maryland seat in the U.S. Senate twice and lost -- and even people who listen for hours on hard metal folding chairs at his campaign events say he has no chance of winning the nomination.

"I don't believe he'll make it," says Mary Moore, a Council Bluffs widow who is not planning to vote for him but attended a recent event. "I just like his ideas."

Keyes activists, some of whom say they were called by God to support him, say this campaign is an expression of evangelical fervor.

On a recent evening in Council Bluffs, a supporter leads more than 300 people in prayer for "a man who is serving your word." The national field director, Chris Jones, warms up the crowd by tearfully talking of sacrifice and comparing Keyes' supporters to the bootless soldiers fighting for George Washington at Valley Forge.

A few minutes later, Keyes strides past the Nautilus equipment to the front of the drafty gymnasium at Iowa Western Community College, where he delivers an hourlong speech and answers questions for another hour.

At no point does the 49-year-old father of three say a word about his life and background -- nothing about his Harvard doctorate, nothing about his stint as ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council, nothing about his childhood as a military brat born in New York City, nothing about the experience of growing up the youngest of five children in a Roman Catholic family.

Instead, he moves straight to the issues. Standing under a campaign banner that declares him victorious -- "President Alan Keyes; Finally!" it announces -- he moves with ease from the abolition of the Internal Revenue Service to the failure of affirmative action to the moral decay of America and a host of other topics.

He rails against abortion: "We are reaching into the womb of this nation's future and cutting off its life." He ridicules gun control: "Why are we giving in to a mentality today that is afraid of guns, that they're some demonic thing that you touch it and you spray the room up with bullets?"

And, most of all, he talks about God: "All the things that constitute our citizenship are founded on this and this alone -- that God exists and on his authority we claim our rights. I have yet to find anybody who can challenge what I just said."

At the end of the evening, a red-haired woman in a parka has fallen asleep, and several families have left with antsy children. But the faithful want more. The campaign passes a plastic jug for donations, and people pitch in fives and twenties. A slow line forms for pictures, and the candidate sticks the cross around his neck into full view and straightens a jacket with a gold lapel pin depicting 10-week-old fetus feet.

"It used to be shameful to be unmarried and have a child, or to live with someone before you are married, but not anymore," said Nina Stoops, a widow from Council Bluffs who makes dollhouse miniatures. "There has to be rules for society, and we've lost that. If he thinks we can get that back, more power to him."

Others echo Keyes' mistrust of the power of government and its role in their private lives.

Phillip Zucca, 48, a electrician at nearby Offutt Air Force Base, fears that "everything is electronic. We don't even sign our own signatures anymore." He wonders whether the government could ultimately use technology against its own people. He explains quietly that it could abolish money and install bar codes in citizens' heads to see what taxes they owe. "I know it sounds crazy," he says, "but I think eventually they will try to get us to do things we don't want to do."

Some political analysts see the Keyes candidacy as a sideshow.

"His following is largely based on the fact that no one believes that he could ever win the nomination, so it's easy to tell a pollster that you're for him when you know it's not going to make any difference in how the country is governed," said Stephen Hess, a political analyst at the Brookings Institution. Keyes' ideas are meant to lure speaking fees and talk-radio gigs, he said.

"It's good for business," said Hess. "It certainly takes chutzpah."

Keyes has long derided establishment pundits and news media, contending that they give time and attention only to shallow, big-money candidates. He talks about his candidacy as something that transcends typical politics and boasts that a bedridden man got up to pray after hearing his word.

"When I stand up in the debates," he says, "and people ask complex questions about policy and I answer those questions in a fashion superior to my colleagues, you think that's just an accident?"

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