IN MARCH, the chairman of the Constitution party, a little-known but very conservative political party based in suburban Virginia, wrote a letter to Alan Keyes urging him to leave the GOP. "We encourage you to come and join with us," the letter said, "in firm reliance on God's divine providence and in pledging to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor for the cause of restoring health to our beloved Republic." Keyes did not immediately respond. Then, several days ago, he seemed to indicate that he might be interested. Members of Keyes's staff told reporters that their boss is set to split with the GOP if the party weakens its pro-life platform plank, or if George W. Bush picks a pro-choice running mate.

The Constitution party (known until last year as the U.S. Taxpayers party) wasted no time in offering Keyes a starring role. Howard Phillips, the party's veteran presidential candidate, promptly volunteered to step aside and let Keyes head the ticket. "Alan Keyes has a real following," Phillips says admiringly. "I've been wooing him for many years."

Will it happen? Keyes can be as hard to reach as a real presidential candidate, so late last week there was no word from him directly. According to his press secretary, however, Keyes has bigger things on his mind. "All of his mental energy is being put to keeping the Republican party together," says Connie Hair, calling on a cell phone from a Keyes event in Montana. (Keyes is still on the road campaigning about four days a week.) "He has been committed to the party since its inception, when it freed his forebears." At this point, says Hair, Keyes hasn't even thought about running for president on another party's ticket.

"On the other hand," Keyes told Human Events recently in one of his fabulous, count-the-clauses-if-you-dare sentences, "some day, if there is some great departure, I'm an American and a human being, a person, I hope, of integrity to my God before I'm a partisan of any kind whatsoever."

In other words: Go squishy on abortion and I bolt.

The Constitution party is fervently hoping he bolts their way. So far its candidates have suffered an alarming rate of attrition. Last summer, Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire left the GOP, telling friends that he planned to continue his bid for the White House as a Constitution candidate. Within a short time, Smith changed his mind and became a Republican again. Then in April, Joseph Sobran, the party's veep candidate, dropped out of the race, citing conflicts with his other job as a columnist.

It can be embarrassing to have your candidates quit, though in the long run Sobran's departure probably helped the party. Sobran is amiable enough in person, and he is a talented polemicist. But if you're running a small, underfunded political party that is seeking to be taken seriously by the rest of the world, then Joseph Sobran probably isn't a great choice as a nominee. In the early 1990s, Sobran was fired from his longtime job at National Review for producing columns that editor William F. Buckley described as indefensible. Sobran started his own website, and began to devote even more of his time to writing about Jews. This spring, while still a vice presidential candidate, Sobran wrote an essay that sought to explain McCain's popularity with the national media. The verdict: "Posing as a patriot, he panders to the Israel lobby." This, Sobran concluded, "is a large reason why so much of the press adores him." (The column is still posted on the Constitution party's website.).

The Bush campaign doesn't seem concerned about the prospect that Keyes will go third party. Keyes is unlikely to cut into Bush's support directly. While many Republicans enjoy watching him -- Keyes did well in surveys of viewers after the debates -- far fewer are willing to take the radical step of voting for him. After many months of campaigning, Keyes has picked up only 10 delegates.

But Keyes could still cause problems for Bush. For one thing, he could make a scene. In 1996, Keyes won his way back into the Republican debates by staging a hunger strike, and then got himself arrested while protesting outside a television station in Atlanta. During this year's primaries, no one even tried to prevent Keyes from appearing with the other, employed candidates. Keep Keyes out? No way, replied McCain strategist Mike Murphy shortly before a debate in February. "He'd throw open his shirt and there would be dynamite strapped to his chest."

Keyes's success in the debates is part of the other reason Bush strategists should think twice before antagonizing him. Keyes has a constituency, mostly of Christian pro-lifers who have seen him on television. "Alan Keyes is a hero to those people," says Howard Phillips, and that is probably not far off. These voters may not want Keyes to be president, exactly, but his opinion still matters to them. What if Keyes were to devote himself full-time to convincing evangelicals not to vote for Bush? Does the Bush campaign need that? Probably not.

For Bush, the choice is simple, says Connie Hair: Tamper with the party platform or pick an unacceptable running mate and he wins a wildly articulate enemy with a national audience and lots of free time. Or he can keep the party pro-life. In that case, says Hair, "The day after the convention we'll be working for Bush."

Tucker Carlson is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.

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