BERLIN, Md. — Carolie Patton remembers how she felt when she heard the booming voice coming from the radio.
It was several weeks ago on the conservative syndicated show "Focus on the Family." A Republican presidential candidate was sermonizing about the failing moral character of the country.
"That speech," the Maryland Republican said recently with a gleam in her eyes, "that eight-minute speech; that went: Pow!"
The speaker was Alan L. Keyes, and after hearing him on the radio, Patton arranged for the talk show host to speak here at her town's Memorial Day observance. Her reaction fit the pattern of Keyes' campaign. No one really believes Keyes has much of a chance to become the first African American to win the Republican Party's presidential nomination, but there is no doubt about the excitement he has generated for GOP activists.
To take just one example, "Focus on the Family" aired Keyes' speech twice to meet audience demands, drawing a response of more than 10,000 telephone calls and letters, according to Paul Hetrick, a spokesman for the program.
Delivering his message with the sort of impassioned pulpit style that takes predominantly white Republican audiences by surprise, Keyes has brought the party faithful to their feet at gatherings across the country with an ardent conservative message warning that moral decline is at the root of all of the nation's problems. Abortion, he insists, is the root of that moral decline, and he routinely compares the fight against the procedure to the 19th-Century struggle against slavery.
In the process, Keyes has demonstrated the power of conservative radio to spread the message of a highly ideological candidate with limited money.
He also has all but eclipsed Rep. Robert K. Dornan (R-Garden Grove), his kindred spirit on social issues who had hoped that his own experience on talk radio and his years as one of Congress' most fiery conservative orators would help him dominate the stylistic and political niche that Keyes has now grabbed.
At the outset of the campaign, Dornan was convinced that he could become the social conservatives' favorite underdog, based on his colorful record in Congress and his passionate speeches about the "cultural meltdown" of the country.
Unafraid to take on President Clinton, Gov. Pete Wilson, Sen. Phil Gramm or any other political rival, Dornan was widely seen as the man who would drive the debate more to the right on social issues, such as abortion and gay rights.
Then along came Keyes. Today, he is living Dornan's dream, speaking up as the unabashed voice of full-throttle social conservatism.
Even Dornan's daughter has come under the spell. At the first GOP candidate forum of the year in New Hampshire, she was seen at the back of the room with a slack-jaw gaze as Keyes spoke, mouthing the words: "He's wonderful."
Dornan "has been a spear-carrier for the right on the right-to-life issue for decades," said James P. Pinkerton, a lecturer at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and a former George Bush Administration official. But "Dornan's misfortune is that Keyes, who does not have nearly as much of a record, is the most dynamic speaker in current American politics today."
Not only has Keyes almost blocked Dornan out of the race, he is also "making it harder for [Patrick J.] Buchanan to corner the market on moral issues," said William Kristol, a Republican strategist who was Keyes' roommate at Harvard University.
Even Kristol, however, gives Keyes no chance of winning the nomination, noting that his former roommate's rhetorical job is made easier by the fact that he is not really in the race to win.
"It's easy to be lively and interesting when you don't need to modulate your message to get 51% of the vote," Kristol said.
Born in New York
Lively and interesting Keyes has proved himself to be. Each time C-SPAN broadcasts a candidate forum, interest in Keyes picks up in New Hampshire, scene of the campaign's first primary next February, said Charles Arlinghaus, executive director of the New Hampshire GOP. Keyes' speeches, he said, prompt people to ask: "Whoa, wait. Who is this guy?"
Alan Lee Keyes was born in New York City almost 45 years ago and brought up in a devout Roman Catholic military family. He had relatively little political experience before entering the presidential contest--a stint as a mid-level State Department official in the Ronald Reagan Administration and two unsuccessful runs for the U.S. Senate from Maryland, in 1988 and 1992. In recent years he has worked as a radio talk-show host.