Keyes' passion hits the right note

Maryland radio host strikes nerve in Iowa

Iowa Caucuses

January 25, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

DES MOINES, Iowa -- He blistered this state with fervid oratory, railed against an electorate he accused of losing its moral compass, even chastised the crowds that applauded him. A devoted following of Iowans came back for more.

And rewarded him with their vote.

The candidacy of Alan L. Keyes, the conservative Maryland talk show host, resulted in one of the only surprises of the Iowa caucuses last night, as the 49-year-old Gaithersburg resident finished third above his rivals at the back of the pack. Keyes, who staked out the emotional territory claimed by Christian conservatives, emerges from Iowa as a rising voice on the religious right.

"Do you want to know what the cause is that has moved so many hearts and moved forward so many people in this state, as it will around the country?" Keyes asked a boisterous crowd of supporters last night after hearing the caucus results. "I say that the answer is clear: Attribute this success, attribute this victory for conscience and right to almighty God and God alone."

This finish is a coup for Keyes, a former ambassador to a United Nations council and self-described outsider who ran for Senate twice in Maryland and was trounced both times by his Democratic competition. He entered presidential politics in 1996, then a speaker-for-hire and radio host, but generated little attention and faded after capturing just seven percent of the vote in Iowa.

This time, his message resonated with voters who believed that some of his competitors -- notably Gary Bauer -- had proved to be anemic spokesmen for the conservative causes they all support. Keyes heads into the New Hampshire primary with a chance to galvanize voters who feel that the Republican establishment has abandoned them on religious and moral issues, particularly in the battle against abortion.

"I speak to the people of New Hampshire -- please, please support him," said Linda Monserrate, a 48-year-old teacher from Des Moines who voted for Keyes after backing Patrick J. Buchanan four years ago.

"You see, we have lost our value of life, and that comes from destroying our unborn children. That is the root of our shootings and the confusion of our young people. Alan Keyes speaks to that loss of morality."

Keyes' staunch anti-abortion message helped fracture the evangelical vote, estimated at 40 percent or more of Iowa Republicans. With a band of aides who consider the Keyes campaign their ministry and who are moved to tears by the preaching of their candidate -- one likened him to George Washington crossing the Delaware -- Keyes campaigned against what he called the country's dangerous moral decay.

Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Steve Forbes each actually captured a larger proportion of the social conservative vote than did Keyes. But leading into the caucuses, a vocal minority said they planned to go with Keyes out of fear that the other candidates' stance against abortion was born more of political expedience than of personal conviction. Keyes, these voters said, preached about God and politics without apology -- and without concern that it would land him too far on the fringe.

Over the past week, Keyes has hit Iowa with TV advertisements designed for visceral impact. One anti-abortion spot used the sound of a beating heart instead of music. Another ad attacked gun control as Keyes warned, "If we want to remain free, we've got to remain armed."

Keyes, who has never held elective office, clearly enjoyed the insurgent spirit of this campaign and the attention it has generated.

At a campaign rally Sunday night, he took a stage dive into a mosh pit -- with his tie on -- after the film maker Michael Moore vowed to endorse the first candidate to do so.

Keyes' passion often made his competitors look like tax attorneys by comparison, as he roused audiences directly in their churches, bounding on the balls of his feet, quoting from the Bible and lingering until late at night to talk moral ruin with interested voters.

He did not hide his disgust for the many voters who said they liked his ideas but would not vote for him because he stood little chance of winning. In recent appearances, he has ordered his supporters to stop clapping if they had applauded for any of his mainstream Republican rivals.

In Iowa, Keyes has marshaled more resources than he did four years ago, nearly doubling the size of his campaign coffers -- to $3.5 million -- in the final months of last year. In recent weeks, he has attracted 4,000 new volunteers, his campaign says.

One big boost to Keyes' campaign came from the nationally televised debates, where his blunt talk made him a favorite among voters who believe that the party has equivocated too much on social issues. At the last Republican debate, he passed up a chance to deliver a closing campaign statement and instead asked to lead the room in prayer. With the cameras rolling, his rivals did as they were told.

Keyes first ran for public office in 1988, in a failed challenge to Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes, a Maryland Democrat. He tried again in 1992, when he was defeated by Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, also a Maryland Democrat, who won with a resounding 71 percent of the vote.

To some Iowa voters, the Keyes' triumph has been a long time coming.

"I have a lot of strong feelings that the problems in this country are based on the decline of the family," said Pat Floersch, a homemaker from Clive who voted for Keyes in 1996. "Even though I knew then that he was not going to win, I was trying to voice my opinion on his moral stand."

The Count

Democrats

Al Gore ...............63%

Bill Bradley..........35%

Uncommitted.........2%

98% reporting

Republicans

George W. Bush....41%

Steve Forbes..........30%

Alan L. Keyes..........14%

Gary L Bauer.............9%

John McCain..............5%

Orin G. Hatch.............1%

97% Reporting

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