He starts his run for the White House officially today with no serious money, no geographical base and no record of political success, but he may be the early Republican front-runner when it comes to what the pols call "sizzle."
After Alan L. Keyes appeared with his party's big-name candidates at a state party convention in South Carolina last month, the phones began to ring at C-SPAN studios in Washington, at Maryland GOP headquarters in Annapolis and at the Keyes headquarters in Atlanta.
Who was that guy? callers asked. Where can I learn more about him?
Mr. Keyes has been introducing himself all over the country ever since.
And today the man Marylanders know as a conservative talk show host, former diplomat and twice-defeated candidate for the U.S. Senate will officially enter the race for his party's presidential nomination. He will announce during a speech before 600 members of the California Republican Assembly in San Diego, site of his party's 1996 national convention.
Mr. Keyes set out on the presidential campaign road, he said during a telephone interview last week, simply to "sound a note, to see if I could get candidates already in the field to take seriously what I think Americans are concerned about."
He says he particularly wanted to accost Republican candidates such as Sens. Robert Dole of Kansas and Phil Gramm of Texas. Neither has sufficient conviction to provide the leadership America needs, he says. He calls them "expedient, time-serving, finger-in-the-wind politicians" who refuse to say what they believe for fear of offending some group of voters.
Only arch-conservatives such as Pat Buchanan, the commentator who announced his own candidacy recently, and Rep. Robert K. Dornan of California exhibit the necessary principled strength, he says.
"Last November's election was a clear sign that people want to confront the issues of the family and the real sources of crime. They have figured out that it's not about money. But I think the Republican leadership is driven by fear, an entirely groundless fear of alienating someone. They're rushing toward a middle that doesn't exist."
The heart of his campaign will be opposition to abortion, important to him for symbolic as well as moral reasons.
"I believe the issues that face us at the moral level are issues of justice for people, in the womb or outside the womb," he says.
What people want, he reckons, is the opposite of what political consultants advise: They want sharply drawn, morals-based solutions.
"We are a people very concerned about right and wrong, justice and injustice. American liberals have always capped their approach in those terms, doing the right things. Republicans have very good approaches to issues, but sometimes they give in to the idea that it's all money and self-interest. In time it will leave people cold. It will attract their minds, but it won't move their hearts."
Accustomed to acclaim for his speaking prowess, Mr. Keyes says he has been been surprised at how deeply his message has resonated.
"People are picking up on one phrase. I've been saying that we don't have money problems in America, we have moral 'f problems. People are concerned about the fraying moral fabric so you have a potential for coalition that we've never seen. It will cross party lines. It will cross racial lines."
He thinks his early success flows from the repugnant image of America seen in such mirrors as afternoon television talk programs. People watch sometimes sordid discussions of family life and wonder, he says, if their nation "still has what it takes, whether we can take care of ourselves as individuals or if we have reached a point where we're so passive and broken down that we rely on outside forces for everything."
His campaign appeal will be based on his belief that America can only save itself from moral decay and "licentiousness" by returning to its foundations of family, faith in God and responsible self-government.
His speech along these lines when Republican hopefuls gathered in New Hampshire last month was greeted with cheering and stomping, remarkable for the contrastingly muted reception accorded the remarks of the others.
Christian and right-wing radio station hosts have been re-playing some of these talks.
After his appearance in South Carolina, C-SPAN followed up with one of its television talk sessions. The callers were drawn largely by Mr. Keyes, according to Steve Scully, C-SPAN's political editor who was host of the program. The network will focus on him tonight in its "Road To The White House" series.
"Our viewers are interested in politics and he's a player, an interesting new Republican figure," said Mr. Scully.
An outburst of effusive faxes to C-SPAN made the point after the South Carolina appearance: "What passion and conviction. . . . A blessing. . . . Superb. . . . It's so wonderful to see someone take a stand for morals."
Soon after that 1,100 men and women turned out to hear him at a Huntsville, Ala., church. More than 500 were there for a Sunday talk at a church in southern Maine. And in Kansas City, an overflow crowd greeted him during an appearance before that city's Federalist Society.
By contrast, there is far less enthusiasm for the Keyes candidacy among mainstream Republicans.
"He's Republican, and he's Maryland," says the Maryland Party Chairman Joyce Lyons Terhes, "but I don't think he can win, and I'm worried about his impact."
She believes -- and Mr. Keyes acknowledges -- that he began with a limited objective: shaping of the GOP platform -- particularly on abortion.
"There's a move to gut the platform in that area, and to move the party to a place that will destroy it in fact," Mr. Keyes said. "I think it's suicidal. It would lead us right over a cliff. So, yes, I'm working very hard to stir things up so they can't get away with that."
But Ms. Terhes says, "You'll never win if you exclude people, and you'll never be the majority party."
After watching him in two races in Maryland, Maryland Republicans regard him as a bit intense and even rigid. He would not be dissuaded in his determination in 1992 to take a salary of $8,500 a month from his campaign contribution fund -- a decision which many in the GOP believe hurt him seriously in his race that year against Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski.
Mr. Keyes had run a surprisingly strong race four years earlier against Maryland's other Democratic senator, Paul S. Sarbanes, taking more than 600,000 votes to just under a million for Mr. Sarbanes. Since he had started late and had little money, some thought he would do better against Ms. Mikulski. But he did not.
Later, after writing a book, he joined WCBM-AM as a morning talk show host. He says he will continue with that for as long as he can. His program is also carried on a network of about eight stations in a number of other states. He says lawyers tell him he will not run afoul of equal time and fairness restrictions for some time.
Though he had no figures immediately available, he said his campaign organizers in Atlanta tell him fund-raising prospects are improving. His campaign headquarters are located there, he said, because many of his earliest backers live there. He met them, he says, while campaigning for Republican candidates in Georgia last year.
Never lacking in confidence, Mr. Keyes nevertheless has been a bit stunned by the reception to his message.
"This thing has already developed a momentum beyond what I expected," he said. He spoke from a Marriott Hotel near Newark, N.J. He was to make a speech that night before the New Jersey Right to Life organization. Last night, he was to speak at a dinner of the Delaware wing of the same organization.
From there, he goes to Philadelphia for the flight to California and his announcement scheduled for noon (EST) today.
"Since the New Hampshire thing, when the switchboard lit up," he says, "I've been going and going."