Making a sales pitch for votes

GOP: Conservative Alan Keyes walks along the edges of the campaign trail in New Hampshire.

February 01, 2000|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SANBORNTON, N.H. -- Someone punches "God Bless America" on the living room jukebox, and Alan Keyes begins to sing in the Giuntas' home on a snowy ridge here. He throws his head back and, in full-throated operatic style, belts out the chorus. Supporters listen as his voice overpowers them. Drawing out the last note, he leads the room in a round of applause.

"Bravo!" he declares for the performance.

Republican presidential candidate and former Maryland talk show host Alan Keyes is struck by his showmanship, it's safe to say, not just here but in his campaign. No matter that his conservative candidacy is a fringe phenomenon. For those on the campaign's periphery, victory is never found in winning, but in belting your opinions just loud enough to drown out whatever else is going on.

The former State Department official is not squandering his time in the spotlight. Last week, Keyes mused about bashing children's heads on the floor in comments to fifth-graders about abortion. Earlier, the never-elected candidate made news in the GOP debates -- defending his leap into an Iowa mosh pit as testament to his ultimate faith in his supporters and attacking Sen. John McCain on a question involving McCain's 15-year-old daughter and a hypothetical abortion.

Life outside the political mainstream is one long sales job. Keyes is trying to press himself on skeptics, supporters, pretty much anyone who asks.

"Hey, Louie, want to talk to presidential candidate Alan Keyes?" Guy Giunta Jr. says into the phone at his parent's house, where Keyes is spending some down time over a home-cooked meal. Keyes quickly takes the call.

The Keyes effort is small-scale -- so small that three days before the primary being held in this state today, the candidate could afford to spend several hours in the Giunta household, feeding cheese to the family dog while other candidates were fervently campaigning. Keyes' armed bodyguards had little to do as well: One accidentally stepped on the Pekingese while lingering in the dining room.

Keyes, 49, a twice-failed Senate candidate in Maryland who lives in Gaithersburg, has campaigned against moral rot across this state. He does so not by calling his views opinions, but billing them as "the truth" and suggesting those who disagree with him not only are wrong, but un-American. Armed with TV ads and cable appearances, he has attracted a small band of zealous supporters.

Even with a back-of-the-pack candidacy, he believes the party knows he is there. He is banking that there is power even in losing the race.

"The people who look to me now as their spokesman are the people the Republican Party needs," Keyes says, sitting comfortably by a crackling fire in a conference center lobby in Bedford. "The party wouldn't want to offend the people who support you -- or those folks aren't going to go out and vote."

An embrace by strangers

At their Sanbornton home, the Giunta family -- relatives of local politician Tony Giunta, the mayor of nearby Franklin -- likes Keyes' hot condemnation of abortion, his preaching on moral decay and his screeds against government taxes and regulation. Guy Giunta Sr., a World War II veteran, trusts Keyes to understand his harsh disillusionment with elected politicians.

"That John Kerry is a lollipop sucker," he says, blasting the Democratic senator from Massachusetts before moving on to attack the Clinton White House.

Keyes enjoys this embrace from strangers. Later he will say the 86-year-old veteran reminded him of his father, a retired career army officer who died a year-and-a-half ago. He poses for a family portrait with them.

Giunta has led Keyes upstairs into a "war room," where he keeps World War II memorabilia under glass -- artifacts he took while fighting for the U.S. Army in Germany, from his old combat helmet to German pistols and Nazi armbands.

Giunta and Keyes bond easily as Giunta talks about the combat he saw in the Battle of the Bulge while Keyes peruses the war mementos. His bodyguards study pictures of heavy artillery. Giunta models his old Army balaclava and goggles.

Keyes gives Giunta a long hug and leaves saying the other candidates treat veterans like "just another `gimme group' " with special-interest votes at stake. His eyes full of tears, he calls the experience "powerful stuff."

Applauding for `the truth'

Keyes is banking on "powerful stuff" to get noticed now. Alan Lee Keyes (named for Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, whom his father deemed a brilliant leader) stumps with emotion, patriotism and a splash of egomania.

In a speech before the New Hampshire legislature, the Harvard Ph.D. told legislators that if they felt his anti-abortion rhetoric was unproductive, they should be "ashamed to be from New Hampshire." When he finished, he said, the crowd applauded "not just for me, but for the truth I had spoken."

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