WASHINGTON -- His campaign is sinking in debt. He's barely a blip in the polls. And as he travels the country, Alan L. Keyes is leaving behind a mysterious trail of disillusioned supporters and former aides.
And yet, even as money troubles are forcing other, more celebrated candidates out of the Republican presidential race, this one-time Baltimore radio talk-show host, who says he's on a mission to save the American family, shows no sign of quitting.
Easily the most electrifying orator in a field of lackluster performers, the 45-year-old conservative from Darnestown, Montgomery County, isn't really a serious contender for the nomination. Even his most ardent backers acknowledge that. Exactly what he is after, however, is less clear.
Mr. Keyes was the big surprise at a recent straw ballot in Florida, where he embarrassed fellow social conservative Patrick J. Buchanan by nearly outpolling him. Though Mr. Keyes wound up fifth -- and organizers had to shut off the microphone to make him stop speaking -- some analysts dubbed him the true winner, since he had achieved every politician's goal of exceeding expectations.
Dismissing Mr. Keyes, a Buchanan spokesman, K. B. Forbes, notes that "Keyes doesn't even register on the radar screen in some polls." Indeed, Mr. Keyes ranked last in a field of nine in the latest Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll, in mid-November, with 1 percent support.
Mr. Keyes, an author and lecturer who was a State Department official in the Reagan administration, doesn't fare much better in places where more voters are paying attention to the race. A recent survey in New Hampshire, the first primary state, showed him with 3 percent support.
For Keyes backers -- mainly religious and social activists on the farthest conservative fringes of the party -- the heart of his appeal is his thunderous message of moral revival, especially his focus on outlawing abortion, which he says "epitomizes the corruption that is eating away at the moral heart and spirit of American life."
At the same time, Mr. Keyes is tapping into the right's reservoir of resentment against the national news media, which he claims are deliberately ignoring his candidacy. Last weekend, thousands of Republican activists in Orlando, Fla., roared their approval when Mr. Keyes denounced the media's obsession with Gen. Colin L. Powell, whom he describes as a "liberal Democrat that the media was trying to disguise as a Republican."
"They tried to pretend that his withdrawal from the race somehow showed the Republican Party was exclusionary," Mr. Keyes said. "They repressed every fact of truth, not because they don't like me, but because they don't like you."
Mary Johnson of Ocala, Fla., who voted for Mr. Keyes in the straw poll, said she believes that the media have shunned him "because he's a black person articulating a conservative message, and that is not politically correct."
'Send a message'
Her support for Mr. Keyes was intended to "send a message" to whoever wins the nomination about what she sees as the nation's moral crisis. But she adds that she will vote for someone else -- a candidate who has a chance to win -- when Florida holds its presidential primary in March.
Unlike his rivals in the Republican race, "Keyes doesn't really have much of a campaign," said John Dowless, state director of the Christian Coalition in Florida, whose members provided much of the Keyes support last weekend. "His whole campaign is him and his speaking."
As Republican officials across the country become better acquainted with Mr. Keyes, some are raising the same questions that have arisen in Maryland, where he twice ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate.
In 1992, his move to pay himself a sizable salary out of campaign funds, though legal, was regarded as ethically dubious and politically fatal by Republicans.
In his latest campaign, Mr. Keyes has all but ignored his home state -- announcing his candidacy in California and operating his campaign, at various times, out of Georgia, Virginia, Oregon and Arizona.
Marylanders have responded in kind; out of 271 contributions of $250 or more in his latest campaign finance report (which showed he had raised a total of $562,560 through Sept. 30), only two came from Maryland.
"His campaign is kind of a roving campaign," said Dave Kochel, executive director of the Iowa Republican Party. All that remains when Mr. Keyes jets off to the next stop, he added, is "a vapor trail."
And, it seems, unpaid bills. The Keyes campaign owes the Iowa Republican Party $946.30 for a voter list it sold him last summer. Candidates often run up debts, but, according to Mr. Kochel, "it's unusual for a presidential campaign to jerk around the party."
Feeling jerked around
Iowans aren't the only ones feeling jerked around.
Utah state Rep. David Bresnahan says he was so mesmerized when he heard Mr. Keyes in Salt Lake City last spring that he volunteered to stage a fund-raising event the next time the candidate came to town. The event went well, Mr. Bresnahan said, but a check for expenses bounced, leaving him out $850 of his own money, and harboring second thoughts about Mr. Keyes.
"He's not a real candidate for president," said Mr. Bresnahan, a self-described "right-wing wacko" whose efforts to get Mr. Keyes to pay up have been unsuccessful. "He doesn't act like one. He doesn't campaign like one."
"His radio talk show was not making him any money, so he found a new avenue to get into: the presidential candidate business," said Mr. Bresnahan, who thinks Mr. Keyes is running to enhance his marketability on the speechmaking circuit.
Mr. Keyes reacts angrily to such criticism, insisting that he is running because he believes he can be nominated and maintaining, as he told CNN recently, that he is "having great success, even though we've been blacked out by the national media."
He also says all the debts will be paid.
As of Sept. 30, the most recent date for which information is available, the Keyes campaign owed a total of $245,315, according to the Federal Election Commission. Mr. Keyes still has an unpaid debt of $44,579 from his 1992 Senate race.
Meantime, a long-simmering dispute between the candidate and his former campaign finance director has continued to escalate. Arthur Rocker, a Georgia political consultant instrumental in persuading Mr. Keyes to enter the presidential race, filed a lawsuit against Mr. Keyes on Nov. 16 seeking $30,000 in back pay and unreimbursed expenses.
Aide left campaign
Repeated attempts to obtain a comment from the Keyes campaign about the lawsuit were unsuccessful. The answering machine at the Manassas, Va., home of press secretary Bill Kling informs callers that he is "no longer with" the campaign, which he quit about two weeks ago.
Dan Gossage, who identified himself as Mr. Keyes' deputy campaign manager, said in a telephone interview from his Phoenix, Ariz., office that he couldn't comment on the suit.
He confirmed that Mr. Kling had left the campaign but said he had no idea why.
"If you find out," he said cheerfully, "let us know."