America's wake-up call?

Alan Keyes strikes a chord with Iowa voters.

Published January 25, 2000 5:00PM (EST)

When he's not running for public office, Alan Keyes is the host of a syndicated AM radio program called "The Alan Keyes Show -- America's wake-up call." Sure, it's a puffed-up title made for talk-radio consumption, but it could be the slogan for Keyes' presidential campaign, which received a bounce after a third-place finish in Monday's GOP Iowa caucuses.

The Harvard grad and former U.S. Senate candidate from Maryland is distinguished by his brimstone campaign schtick, preaching about American moral decay like a fire-breathing Cassandra of the apocalypse. But his third-place vote in Iowa could be proof that some people are beginning to listen.

Certainly Keyes views it that way. He sees himself as the national moral alarm clock, blasting John McCain for his mock endorsement of the rock band Nine Inch Nails and shaming voters for not protecting the right to life for unborn children. "I'm voting for what I think is morally right," Greg Isenberger, 54, a born-again Christian from Baxter who works as a warehouseman, told the Des Moines Register. "What this nation needs is a return to morals, and that's what Alan talks about."

Of course, the fact that Keyes' third-place finish -- CNN was reporting just after polls closed that Keyes had received 14 percent of the vote -- is big news coming out of Iowa is a symptom of the media's boredom with the race to date. But Keyes is enjoying his moment in the sun. On Sunday night he visited 801 Grand, the Iowa steakhouse favored by interloping media and political types, and careened through the restaurant, a TV camera and spotlight clearing the way for him while his wife and children followed behind. He passed the ABC table where George Stephanopoulos and Jackie Judd sat, and stopped to say hi to his former Harvard roommate, the Weekly Standard's Bill Kristol.

Earlier that night, Keyes called the bluff of lefty guerrilla journalist Michael Moore, who promised to endorse any candidate who agreed to "surf" on the hands of about 50 teenagers huddled around, as Rage Against the Machine blared from nearby speakers. (If Keyes hates Nine Inch Nails, one must ask what he thinks about Rage's pro-Zapatista lyrics, and their headlining appearance at a recent Mumia Abu Jamal benefit.)

But Keyes' impromptu plunge into the crowd underscored the fact that he's fearless and feeling good. Now he's hoping to be the surprise breakout candidate as the campaign heads to New Hampshire. "It will provide us with a very good basis for moving forward and energizing our people," a beaming Keyes said before the vote about a possible third-place finish. "I think we'll be pretty happy with that result."

When asked if the Iowa bronze medal would translate into more media coverage of him, he said, "I guess you'd have to ask them that. Though I certainly seem to be coming in for more attention."

Keyes has been a natural public speaker since his college days at Cornell. It was in Ithaca, N.Y., where Keyes, the son of Democrats, found the GOP, motivated by his disdain for anti-Vietnam war protests on campus. After he publicly criticized the 1969 black militant takeover of Cornell's student center during his freshman year, Keyes later transferred to Harvard -- via a year abroad in Paris. While Al Gore was sharing a dorm room with actor-to-be Tommy Lee Jones, Keyes was paired with a fellow young conservative, William Kristol, now editor of the Weekly Standard.

After getting his Ph.D. in government from Harvard, Keyes spent 11 years with the U.S. State Department, first as vice consul in Bombay, India, before being tapped by Jeanne Kirkpatrick to be an ambassador to the U.N.'s Economic and Social Council. Since then, Keyes has responded to the title, "Mr. Ambassador," a bit like a chiropractor responding to the title, "Doctor."

In 1988, Keyes ran for U.S. Senate from Maryland, getting 38 percent of the vote against incumbent Democrat Paul Sarbanes. He ran again in 1992, mustering just 29 percent of the vote. Keyes came under fire in that race for paying himself a salary of about $8,000 a month out of campaign funds.

In 1996, Keyes threw his hat into the presidential ring from his new perch as a radio talk-show host. Of course, in '96, Keyes wasn't the African-American most Republicans were hoping would jump into the race. But as Colin Powell sat on the sidelines, Keyes crept onto the national stage, with his boisterous campaign sermons warning of America's moral decay.

For the most part, Keyes was preaching into a vacuum, even in conservative states like Iowa. In the 1996 Iowa caucuses, Keyes finished sixth, sandwiched between Phil Gramm and Richard Lugar. His third-place finish this year must feel like redemption.

But the question is, how long will Keyes' moment last? Conservatives have surged in Iowa before, most notably Pat Robertson's surprise second-place showing in 1988. Of course, Robertson wasn't the nominee that year, or any other. But his surprise showing in Iowa did catalyze the formation of the Christian Coalition, and made religious conservatism a cornerstone of the post-Reagan Republican Party.

Lately, though, the movement has fractured. This year, while Keyes, Steve Forbes, Gary Bauer and Sen. Orrin Hatch have been jockeying for Christian support, front-runners George W. Bush and McCain have been more moderate in their appeal. Many religious activists have taken a more pragmatic approach, too, with Ralph Reed and Jerry Falwell endorsing Bush instead of Keyes or any of the other more vocally conservative candidates.

That's not likely to change. While the bounce from Iowa may bring Keyes a bit more attention, it certainly won't bring him the Republican nomination. But it may provide him with a level of credibility that has been missing up until now. "For those who want a rock 'em, sock 'em, revivalist kind of talk, and don't want to worry about electability, Keyes gives them that revivalist message," Dennis Goldford, chairman of the politics and international relations department at Drake University told the Associated Press.

It certainly elevated him above the rest of the also-rans among Iowa Republicans. And while he's by far the most eloquent of the six candidates, with his preacher's baritone often on the front end of the debate's largest applause lines, he says the clapping is no longer enough.

"No, no, no, don't applaud, you see, 'cause I have to tell you, I'm skeptical about y'all," he said, reprimanding the faithful at a recent evangelical/political rally in Iowa. "You can applaud for somebody else. 'Cause I've seen it all too often -- people stand up and applaud for things and say they believe them. And then they go out and they cast their vote in ways calculated to do God knows what."

Salon's Jake Tapper contributed to this story.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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