- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 1999

Moments after he earned repeated cheers from the live audience at a recent Republican presidential debate in Phoenix, Alan Keyes entered an adjacent press room packed with more than 150 reporters for the post-debate analysis.

"The invisible man has arrived," Mr. Keyes said, glowering at reporters. Nobody asked him a single question, and Mr. Keyes quickly departed.

While the long-shot Mr. Keyes isn't receiving much media attention, and clearly resents it, his performance in the debates is undeniably earning him popularity with the public.

A recent poll in New Hampshire, site of the nation's first presidential primary on Feb. 1, showed the conservative ex-diplomat climbing modestly, from a nearly invisible 2 percent to 5 percent.

That's still a long way from being a serious contender for the Republican nomination. But some political analysts say that Mr. Keyes is now within striking distance of overtaking conservative publisher Steve Forbes for third place in New Hampshire. Mr. Forbes received 7 percent in the same poll.

"I think you may see Keyes passing Forbes [in New Hampshire]," said political consultant Dick Morris. "Then he becomes the Pat Buchanan of the year."

Yet the only black candidate in the field still finds himself in much the same situation as 1996: fighting what he says is racism in the media and viewed by his party as an unelectable curiosity with a gift for public speaking. He has raised only about $2.5 million, a sum dwarfed by even Senate campaigns.

Mr. Keyes, who has been winning over live audiences ever since he won a national oratorical contest at age 16, said in an interview that the string of televised presidential debates has improved his showing this year.

"I do think we've gotten a very positive response to the debates," he said. "It's a result of that exposure. I am addressing the major concern today: the moral condition of the country."

The 49-year-old Gaithersburg, Md., resident has fared even better in on-line surveys, though such unscientific contests are not random and are skewed toward a more affluent, better-educated audience. In Mr. Morris' "Vote.com" survey after last week's debate in Iowa, on-line viewers rated Mr. Keyes the winner with 44 percent.

Texas Gov. George W. Bush was second with 39 percent, followed by Sen. John McCain with 11 percent and Mr. Forbes with 3 percent.

"Keyes is a great orator Douglas MacArthur caliber," Mr. Morris said. "He may be one of the best public speakers of our generation."

Said Howard Opinsky, a spokesman for the McCain campaign, "He's an outstanding speaker, there's no question. For John McCain, there's a sense that he and Alan Keyes share a common trait: They're not afraid to say what they think. That could be a clue as to why he's improving."

In one debate, Mr. Keyes, who believes income taxes should be abolished, criticized Mr. Bush as "Massa Bush" for proposing a tax-cut plan.

"The use of the term 'Massa Bush' was not criticism," Mr. Keyes said. "This whole business is not personal with me. The issue is how much control government and government officials should have over our lives. They are not our masters."

The former radio talk-show host consistently rails against America's moral decay, linking it to nearly every issue the allied bombing of Serbia, abortion, even the vanishing family farm.

"Folks look at the family farming system like the only thing we get from family farms is the food," Mr. Keyes said in the Iowa debate last week. "We lose the family farm, and we lose the nursery of America's moral character."

Mr. Keyes said his message of morality has been aided this time around by "this whole crisis of impeachment."

"That's definitely helping to make this a front-burner concern for many Americans," he said.

For the excitement Mr. Keyes has generated, however, most in the Republican Party still view him as a "can't win" candidate, in part because he has never held elective office.

"He is the most exciting speaker," said Stephen Roberts, a Republican National Committee member in Iowa. "But the fact is, nobody expects him to go anywhere. He isn't credible enough."

Media exposure can bring credibility, and Mr. Keyes blames a media stereotype that all blacks are liberals for his failure to attract a larger audience.

"Whether I do well or do badly [in debates], they just find a reason to ignore it," Mr. Keyes said. "Prejudice means prejudging someone according to a stereotype. That's what has been happening in the media, and it's not right. It is a stereotype of a racial group.

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