Cover Story

But can he win?

Alan Keyes, the prophet-politician whose soaring oratory towers above all others, has a problem: Even some of his biggest boosters are wobbly on the question of "winnability." But what Mr. Keyes may lack as a politician he makes up for as a prophet. Indeed, Mr. Keyes may have won already-if his quest is to push the other Republican presidential candidates to embrace the pro-life cause.

Issue: "Alan Keyes: Can he win?," March 13, 1999

in Sacramento, Calif. - Alan keyes was in good form at breakfast on Feb. 27, delivering one of his stem-winding, thoroughly pro-life speeches to delegates at the California GOP spring convention. Party faithful mulled his words as they left the hall. Many gushed over the rhetorical high points: "Wasn't he incredible?" one excitable young woman told an older companion: "I could listen to him all day." And then came her dagger-like comment: "It's too bad he can't win." That is what Mr. Keyes hears regularly. He knows he's got the right oratorical skills (nobody else comes close), the right degrees (including a Harvard Ph.D.), and even the right race to be a contender (Republican leaders who are black gain instant exposure because of their relative rarity). But still he's considered a prophet, not a real candidate, by many of those who should be his most fervent supporters. The young woman in California, for example, supported the pro-life slate of candidates seeking to lead the state GOP (see p. 17). She allowed a volunteer to slap a Keyes 2000 sticker on her lapel. Yet she doesn't believe for a minute that Alan Keyes will be the next president of the United States-and he knows it. He hears the cheers, applause, and Amens that inevitably accompany his speeches. But he also hears whispers about winnability-and he has no patience for them. "I remember during the course of the late, unlamented primary season in 1996, I had so many folks come up to me after speeches like this and tell me what a wonderful message it was and so forth and so on," he told WORLD. "But if I made the mistake of asking them who they were going to vote for, they would say 'Somebody else.' And if I made the mistake of inquiring a little further as to why, they would always give me some version of 'Well, they are the ones that have a chance of winning.'" Mr. Keyes has a blunt message for such voters: "If you go out and look to pick a winner then you will have to read the paper and the polls will tell you who the winner is. And they are the same polls that tell us that Bill Clinton is supported in his depravity by 86 percent of the people in the United States. If you believe those polls, you will get the candidates that you deserve. "I want you to put aside all the calculations and put aside all the question of who is the winner," he told more than 1,000 Christian Coalition members in New Hampshire recently. "Because no winner is decided until you decide. Because no hope is dashed until you dash the hope. And no future for America is lost until in your loss of conviction you throw it away." Most candidates would not be so hard on their own fans. But Mr. Keyes isn't most candidates. Much of the time, he seems to be running for prophet rather than for president. Ronald Reagan made famous the uplifting notion of "Morning in America." Alan Keyes talks as if it were instead the twilight of civilization. To listen to one of his speeches is to engage in an act of self-flagellation. He relentlessly points out America's sins and chides his audiences for failing to fight harder. "You will help Bill Clinton toss this country down the toilet of history," he warned the Californians. His message in New Hampshire was similarly grim: "We have placed upon the throne lying and dishonesty and lack of integrity and right now it looks as if there are too many Americans tempted to go down on their knees and worship that vice." Such righteous indignation tends to make Mr. Keyes about as popular in some Republican circles as Jeremiah must have been in the king's court. But Jeremiah had the advantage of never seeking elective office. Mr. Keyes, on the other hand, wants to be both prophet and politician-a dual role that can be awkward in the glare of the media spotlight. Righteous indignation, it seems, is difficult to simply switch off. The press makes him indignant. "Why can't you stop lying about me?" he snapped at one hapless reporter who incorrectly asserted during a Sacramento press conference that Mr. Keyes had twice run unsuccessfully for president. Mr. Keyes pointed out that the 1996 campaign was his first try for national office, not his second. But he wasn't through with the reporter: "In 1996 you treated me like I wasn't even a candidate. Now you act like I do this all the time. When are you going to get it right?" Fellow Republicans make him indignant. Steve Forbes earned laughter and applause in New Hampshire when he began his speech by assuring everyone in the room that they were on his short list for jobs in the Forbes administration. Mr. Keyes, an outspoken Forbes critic in the past, didn't laugh, however. "I managed to keep under control the pang of joy I was supposed to feel when Steve said I was on his short list," he said icily in opening his speech. "I don't know how I managed to do that." But for Alan Keyes, nothing stokes the fires of righteous indignation like abortion-not only the fact that it happens, but also the fact that many in his own party don't seem to care. "Those who want to finesse or avoid the issue of abortion are not good enough" for the GOP, he says: "Politicians unwilling to confront the killing spirit of our time declare their moral cowardice and forfeit the right to lead." To wild cheers, he told the New Hampshire crowd that pro-abortion Republicans like Rudolph Guiliani, Pete Wilson, and Christine Todd Whitman were nowhere near the short list for any Keyes administration. "And if and when the Republican Party makes the error of putting any of them anywhere on the national ticket," he declared, "I will have a short list of things to do that will begin with leaving the Republican Party behind." In the 1996 presidential campaign, Mr. Keyes was almost alone in saying such things. This year, in the early stages of the campaign, Jeremiahs are everywhere. Gary Bauer, Pat Buchanan, and Bob Smith are all fiery pro-lifers who mention the issue in every speech. Dan Quayle and John Kasich are less fiery, but equally committed. Even Steve Forbes can't make a speech without pledging to put abortion "on the road to extinction." The sin that no politician dared to mention in 1996 is now the sin that no Republican presidential candidate dares to ignore. Mr. Keyes is suspicious of much of the pro-life rhetoric, seeing in it a calculated attempt to curry favor with the religious right. But the fact remains that the issue is very much on the table. This time around, no one is pretending not to see the elephant in the middle of the room. Mr. Keyes finished his Sacramento press conference on Feb. 27, looking tired and frazzled, with bags under his eyes and a mouth set in a thin, tight line. Clearly, it isn't easy being a prophet. But as he left the room with a couple of television cameras in tow, he stopped to answer a question about what sets him apart at a time when many others are also speaking of "morality." Just for a moment, the wariness in his eyes seemed to abate, and his lips curled into a tired smile. The polls aren't favorable, the crowds aren't huge, and the money is slow to come in. But the reporter's very question proved that even if Mr. Keyes never occupies the Oval Office, he has already won, in a way: His issues are being debated rather than dodged. Later that night, Dan Quayle stood before a dinnertime audience at least three times as large as the one that Mr. Keyes addressed at breakfast. The former vice president delivered a polished, impassioned speech heavy on morality, character, and family values. Dozens of TV cameras and scores of reporters lined the rear of the cavernous hall. When it was over, placard-waving supporters danced through the tables while music blared over the P.A. system. But as the California Republican Party celebrated the very issues that he has championed for years, Mr. Keyes was nowhere to be found. Far from the media spotlight, in Carmel, Calif., Mr. Keyes was putting his money where his mouth is by doing a fundraiser for a local crisis pregnancy center. A prophet's work is never done.

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