WASHINGTON – The odds of Alan Keyes winning the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 are long. But if it were possible to talk your way into the White House, he’d be a good bet.
“He speaks with great passion,” said presidential contender Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, reflecting on Keyes’ impact on a South Carolina GOP audience earlier this month.
“He reminded me of what I would think Frederick Douglass might have sounded like,” Gramm said of Keyes, a Cornell and Harvard-educated Ph.D. of Darnestown, Md. “It was a moving speech. I was moved by it. So was everybody else.”
Keyes, 44, maintains the GOP wisely is focusing on economic issues but is unwilling to confront “priority issues of morality.” He is testing presidential waters with an unabashed emphasis on abortion, the breakdown of the marriage-based family and personal responsibility.
While Keyes himself won’t say whether a run for the White House is imminent, his supporters are optimistic. “This will be the month that he does announce,” said George Uribe, Keyes’ Atlanta-based national coordinator.
Keyes’ ability to engender allegiance after a single speech is what you might expect from someone who won 1967’s American Legion national oratorical championship and presently hosts a three-hour, nationally syndicated, weekday radio program, “America’s Wake-up Call.”
Earlier this year, he finished fourth, tied with former senator and cabinet secretary Jack Kemp and ahead of Senate Majority Leader Robert Dole, among likely GOP candidates in a Louisiana straw poll of Republican activists.
The former U.N. ambassador and assistant secretary of state’s pro-life, pro-family message earned him third- and fourth-place finishes in similar polls in Arizona and South Carolina. But it was last month’s New Hampshire State GOP Committee speech that first struck a nationwide chord.
“In those eight minutes, I presented the basic theme that I think is most important,” Keyes said. “It’s summed up in one sentence: the crisis that America faces today is not a crisis of money issues, it’s a crisis of moral issues.”
Keyes, who ran two unsuccessful campaigns in Maryland for the Senate in 1988 and 1992, said the fiscally conservative GOP presidential field has left a vacuum by avoiding abortion – which “epitomizes the moral crisis the country faces” – the breakdown of moral standards and choices.
“In their heart of hearts they think the business of government is about budgets and money and the rest of it doesn’t matter,” he said.
Keyes appears willing to fill the void.
Problems of crime and a burgeoning welfare state fueled by out-of-wedlock births stem from an attitude of “licentious freedom,” Keyes said, “an attitude that freedom means doing whatever you want, and then the government will clean up the consequences.”
Likely presidential candidate Rep. Robert K. Dornan, R- Calif., also a critic of what he calls “cultural meltdown,” said Keyes has co-opted the moral issues by force of elocution.
“He has stolen the thunder at both initial presidential beauty pageants – New Hampshire and South Carolina – because of his moral message,” Dornan said.
“He is the type of communicator that can move men and women to tears, not just standing ovations,” Dornan said. “It proves that the day of Daniel Webster in not lost forever.”
Portions of Keyes’ New Hampshire address were carried on “Focus on the Family,” a pro-family radio program originating from Colorado Springs, Colo., to 3 million to 5 million weekly listeners.
“We got one of our highest responses ever,” said Paul Hetrick, Focus spokesman. “Calls came in by the thousands.” So intense was the reaction, the Keyes’ segment re-aired the following day.
But Keyes’ ascension onto the national scene hasn’t impressed everyone. “I don’t know him very well. I helped him in one of his campaigns,” was all presidential hopeful Dole, R-Kan., had to say about him.
Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Prince George’s Democrat, doesn’t see a Keyes-for-president campaign gaining much momentum.
“He doesn’t have much credibility, in my opinion, in his own party,” Hoyer said. “I don’t think he’s much of a player.”
Keyes earned 38 percent of the general election vote in 1988 against Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes and 29 percent in 1992 against Democratic Sen. Barbara Mikulski.
Rep. Albert Wynn, D-Prince George’s, said it would be difficult for Keyes to distinguish himself from others attempting to capture the socially conservative wing.
Keyes, Dornan and commentator Patrick Buchanan, Wynn said, would be vying for the same voter.
“They’re splitting a fairly narrow segment of the electorate,” Wynn said. “I wonder, not having success in Maryland, why he thinks he’ll have more success nationally?”
Keyes said his radio exposure and a direct mail campaign could help him raise enough for a serious run for the White House. But others say at least $20 million is a prerequisite and don’t think the money will flow Keyes’ way.
“It’s going to take much more money than he’s going to be able to come up with,” said Rep. Kweisi Mfume, a Baltimore Democrat and former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.
At the end of 1994, the Alan Keyes Committee had just $1,409 on hand, Federal Election Commission documents show. In contrast, Gramm held nearly $4.4 million. Dole commands more than $1.5 million from his Senate campaign committee which he could use in a presidential bid.
Despite his characterization of Keyes and himself as “absolute, total, polar opposites,” Mfume said Keyes, as a black, keeps the GOP “more honest than it otherwise would be” on issues of race, inclusion and opportunity. “He stands up and says, `Hey, you say you want to reach out, well, reach out to me.’ ” -30-