Des Moines, Iowa — After the Des Moines Register Republican presidential debate ended here Wednesday afternoon, Susan Patterson Plank, the paper’s vice president of marketing, was a little defensive. Reporters wanted to know how Alan Keyes, the former ambassador running a nearly nonexistent campaign, qualified for the debate. Standing beside the established Republican candidates on the stage at the Iowa Public Television headquarters, Keyes used his considerable rhetorical skills to wander all over the lot, deliver sermons, avoid questions, grow increasingly irritable, and in general lead viewers to ask what in the hell he was doing on stage.
So how did it happen? “We have to have criteria,” Patterson Plank told me. “It’s always easy after the fact to say should we have tweaked them here or there, but reading them up front, they looked like very solid criteria, and we still believe that they are.”
The criteria for admission to the debate, according to the Register, were that a candidate must have filed papers with the Federal Election Commission; that he must have publicly announced his candidacy; that he have a campaign office in Iowa as of October 1; that he have at least one full-time paid staff member in Iowa; and that he score at least one percent support in the Register’s October poll.
Keyes has indeed filed the required papers. He did announce, in September, that he is a candidate. And he scored two percent support in the Register’s October poll, although he showed zero percent support in the same poll in November. As far as having a campaign office and at least one full-time paid staffer, well, that’s where things get a little fuzzy. And that, it turns out, is a bit of a sore spot for the candidate, who came to the media Spin Room to confront anyone who had the slightest doubt that he belonged up there with the other candidates.
As Keyes made his way through the jam of reporters and cameramen, I said to him, “Ambassador, some people are a little confused about what you’ve been doing to campaign in Iowa for the last couple of months. So could you tell us what you’ve been doing in Iowa – “
“I’ve been running a national campaign that’s based on a different principle than you’ll understand,” Keyes began.
“But here in Iowa?”
“Hold it. Can I explain the principle? Because you don’t get to define the process of politics in this country. You only think you do. The people define it. My campaign is based on the notion that we reach out to people all over this country. We ask them to sign a pledge at my website, alankeyes.com. It’s called the “Pledge for America’s Revival.” And in that pledge every person who signs it says they are going to find five other people at least to join our army of political revival. And everywhere a person signs a pledge — and I have told them this – they are the campaign. You have invented this notion that campaigns are yard signs and appearances and stuff. You don’t have the right to say what it is. A campaign is people reaching people. It is conducted not by politicians and not by the media, but by the people themselves.”
That was a rather long way of saying Keyes hasn’t done much of anything in Iowa. At that point, Keyes looked over his shoulder to Tom Hoefling, an Iowa Republican who was accompanying him. “How many people do we have now in Iowa?” he asked.
“I can’t give you a number,” Hoefling said. “We have thousands.”
“But in terms of the pledges?” Keyes said.
“I don’t know – a couple hundred,” Hoefling answered.
In fact, alankeyes.com lists the number of people, by state, who have signed the pledge. And in Iowa, the number is…49. In New Hampshire, 18 people have signed the pledge. In South Carolina, 44 have signed. Nationwide, according to the website, a total of 2,678 people have signed the pledge.
The Register poll in October surveyed 405 likely Republican caucus goers. Keyes could have gotten two percent of that by having eight people say they supported him. Through the marvels of statistics, it might be that the Register managed to hit eight of the 49 people who had signed Keyes’ pledge. Voila! Keyes took his place on the stage.
But nobody knew those numbers in the Spin Room, and Hoefling’s mention of a “couple hundred” only served to confuse things.
“You have a couple hundred paid staff in Iowa?” a reporter asked.
“No, it’s not paid staff,” Keyes said. “Are you listening or not?”
“It’s a question. How many paid staff in Iowa?”
Keyes had had enough of such details. “You are working, I guess, for the elites who want us to believe that campaigns are about money,” he told the reporter.
“Do you not wish to answer the question?”
“No, I want you to understand that you don’t have the right to dictate our political process. It belongs to the people, not to you. And money doesn’t buy votes.”
I jumped in again. “Ambassador, I’m going to ask you one more time. Have you personally been doing campaign events here in Iowa in the last few months?”
“I have had several campaign events here in Iowa, but I will not define those events as you do,” he said.
“In the last few months?”
“I don’t define those events as you do. And I don’t think you have any right whatsoever to establish yourselves as the arbiter of what constitutes an event. I will do that in a way that reflects the best needs and purposes of the people who are working with me. Because as I see it, every time somebody comes forward and takes the pledge, that’s an Iowa event.”
That puts Keyes at 49 and counting.