DES MOINES, Iowa -- In a Republican presidential field where control and discipline are equated with success, longshot candidate Alan Keyes is like a man navigating in the dark, blind to the surprises that can come with each new campaign day.
Over one recent 24-hour campaign cycle, a snowbound car forced him to cancel a meeting with influential pastors, aides scheduled a last-minute luncheon speech over fried chicken nuggets and the candidate arrived for an evening rally in Cedar Rapids, stunned to find 1,000 supporters awaiting him.
"This is not exactly a well-oiled machine," Mr. Keyes said, laughing on the way to another campaign stop shrouded in mystery.
It is the lowly Keyes campaign's unpredicability that makes it so potentially dangerous for the front-running candidates -- at least, in Iowa. And however he ultimately fares in the state, he appears to have won himself a heightened party profile.
Despite his faint presence in the polls, the 45-year-old former diplomat unquestionably is stirring up passion within Iowa's influential constituency of Christian activists. During the recent candidates' forum here, Mr. Keyes won points for his firm opposition to abortion and emphasis on family issues -- as well as his eloquent responses in a debate filled with verbal jousting.
"His message interested me and so did the way he says it," said Polk County Republican co-chair Audrene Hansen. "But I just don't see him going very far."
Black and Roman Catholic, Mr. Keyes would seem hamstrung with the conservative white Protestant base he hopes to win over. But he has overcome the expected "raised eyebrows" and attracted a small, loyal core of moral conservatives and anti-abortion activists who have fashioned growing campaign organizations in Cedar Rapids, Davenport and several other fundamentalist strongholds.
Such disciplined loyalists have repeatedly defied the odds by turning out in disproportionately large numbers on Iowa caucus nights. This winter, many of the veteran Christian right leaders who propelled the televangelist Pat Robertson to a stunning second-place caucus showing in 1988 are working for "electable" candidates -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and commentator Patrick J. Buchanan.
But Mr. Keyes has found a fervent cadre among younger religious activists and among social conservatives who worked for Mr. Robertson six years ago but are left cold by the other candidates running this year.
"I'm just tired of people who equivocate on every stinking issue," said David Baugh, an anti-abortion activist organizing for Mr. Keyes in Cedar Rapids. "Alan Keyes' message is about as pure and unflinching as you can get."
Mr. Keyes sees "moral failure" everywhere -- women who undergo abortions, inner-city mothers living on welfare instead of working, families in chaos. Government abets moral failure, he says, through welfare programs, excessive taxes and a liberal public education system.
"As the family crumbles," Mr. Keyes says repeatedly, "the nation crumbles."
It is a message that hits home with activists like Mr. Baugh. A transplanted engineer from Garden Grove, Calif., Mr. Baugh, 36, was living in Orange County when the Robertson forces stunned political observers in the '88 caucuses. After fleeing California for Iowa's "quiet life" in 1992, Mr. Baugh immersed himself in the anti-abortion movement in Cedar Rapids -- and began wondering whom he would support in the 1996 presidential campaign.
Mr. Baugh said he was "bowled over" when he saw Mr. Keyes speak on C-SPAN during a televised appearance of the GOP candidates in South Carolina last year.
"Just about everyone up there took a pro-life position," Mr. Baugh said. "But Keyes was the best at linking the problems of the family to all the financial problems we face today."
Since then, Mr. Baugh and other anti-abortion activists in Cedar Rapids have attracted 1,000-plus crowds at several rallies by plugging away with grass-roots marketing. Phone banks are crucial to the Keyes operation, as they are to the other campaigns in Iowa. But it is volunteers like Mr. Baugh -- rather than Mr. Keyes' wisp of a central campaign staff -- who acquire phone lists of anti-abortion activists and supervise calls at nights and on weekends.
Leaders of Iowa's Christian activists insist that on caucus night, moral conservatives who have been inspired by Mr. Keyes will end up supporting alternative candidates with more realistic chances of obtaining the nomination. "People who like him won't vote for him at the caucuses," said the Rev. John Hulsizer, a Dubuque pastor who supports Mr. Gramm.
But GOP professionals say that even if he fails to do well in the caucus vote, Mr. Keyes' stirring speeches on behalf of family issues have resonated. There is talk of a prime-time place for him at the party's national convention in San Diego this August.
And some religious activists who long for a national figure to promote their agenda even dare to wonder whether Mr. Keyes might be considered as a vice presidential possibility.
"He speaks so well, and he doesn't divide people," said Carmen Kopf, an activist with the anti-abortion Iowans for Life organization who supports Mr. Gramm. "I think whoever's nominated should look at him seriously."
Stephen Braun is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.