Chris Jones is the warm-up act for the Big Man, and he's feeling it, feeling it.

"We're going to crush them like a bug on Monday!" booms the national field director for Alan Keyes. He's talking about the Republican presidential caucus here, where the buzz is strong that Keyes could finish third and elevate his presidential bid from bottom-feeder status to, well, something akin to swimming with the guppies. If only for a night.

Who knows what will really happen? After all, the guy came in sixth four years ago with 7 percent, and he is so often dismissed as a spellbinding moral crusader who can't go all the way. Either too odd or too black or too far to the right. In essence, too hard to explain in the language of conventional politics.

How do you explain a black man who regularly uses slavery metaphors to make his points and yet complains he has been racially typecast? How do you explain a candidate who won't actually ask for votes because he doesn't want to feed "this obsession people have" with winning? And yet this same candidate berates people--"very stupid," he has called them--who reject his candidacy because they don't believe he can win. How do you explain a candidate who derides polls as "fiction" but who then criticizes the media for not recording his rise in the polls? How do you explain a man who spews lightning bolts at those who disagree with him and yet can be so friendly and soft-spoken in casual conversation?

How do you explain him? You say he's a complicated man, a complicated man.

But the Keyes true believers understand him, and they talk now about third place on Monday like it's a given; second, they say, is not out of the question. Because Iowa is the political field of dreams. Here, it's all about organization, stealth organization, about getting your faithful to these little precinct meetings so they can stand up for you--in Keyes's case, if for no other reason than to send a message that morality matters. To push that party, push that national party. Because three-quarters of Iowa Republicans call themselves conservative, and Alan Keyes is the most conservative candidate in the field, the only one to earn a 100 percent approval rating from the Iowa Conservative Coalition. And in Iowa, sometimes upsets do happen. Somebody go find George "Poppy" Bush, the former president, and ask him about Pat Robertson in 1988.

Forget that, somebody go find Bob Dole and ask him what happened in Linn County, home of Cedar Rapids, the second-biggest city in the state. That's where Alan Keyes came within four votes of beating the GOP nominee in 1996 because a fella named David Baugh, an electrical engineer, worked his butt off. He worked 50 hours a week, from September to February. And that's after coming home in the evening from his day job. "It was crazy," Baugh says. "What I did was go outside of the normal political people and organized by church. Most campaigns organize by precincts first. Instead, I said, 'I don't care what precinct you're in. I don't care if we get 8,000 votes in one precinct. I just want to get the most votes total.' "

Keyes almost pulled it off. In fact, Baugh, who's not involved this time around--"burned out"--thinks Keyes really won by two votes. What a story.

The Keyes people are psyched. A recent Los Angeles Times poll of likely GOP caucusgoers put the former diplomat at third with 10 percent, behind Steve Forbes at 25 percent and George W. Bush at 43 percent. And, hey, let's not forget the mock election that government teacher Steve Johnson conducted among his classes at West Sioux High School: Keyes over Bush by five. Yeah, boy!

"I'm not going to tell you it's going to be easy," Chris Jones says, toning it down a notch. "It's a fairly small group, but it's a mighty group." And here comes the kicker, so he cranks it back up. Come Monday night, Jones predicts, we will "astound the pundits" around the country. Shock the world!

Now, without further ado . . .

"This is the foremost conservative orator of our time . . . I introduce to you, Dr. Alan Keyes!"

The crowd of 225 packed into a small lecture hall at North Iowa Area Community College rises in ovation--farmers who have traveled 50 miles, homemakers, ministers, soldiers in the wars against abortion and taxation and radical homosexuality and religious persecution and filth in the Oval Office.

Keyes is their man. Because he believes that Clinton administration officials are "condom czars" and that free-trade agreements are "socialist." And because in the last GOP debate he decided to skip his closing statement and use his time to lead his rivals in prayer.

Keyes is their man.

He bounces to the stage, broad smile, and gets busy. No microphone needed. It's like he's doing Shakespeare in the park. His people have put these huge red-white-and-blue billboards behind him that say, "Vote Your Conscience." Keyes walks and talks and waves and points. Then he hits them with a new move: He balls both fists at the waist and replicates the motion of the weightlifter doing biceps curls, like he's pulling it from his gut.

"Freedom requires a certain discipline. . . . Do we still have the character to be free?" He's asking the big questions. Don't take away our guns, as though we can't be trusted as a citizenry to handle that responsibility. Do we actually think that schools would fall apart if we turned them over to parents? His oratory is seamless. The transitions, the pacing, the modulation. The audience is fixated. They're drinking him up. In 1967 he won the American Legion's national oratorical contest as a high-schooler in San Antonio, where his father, a career Army officer, was stationed.

If the Iowa caucus were a playground, the young bucks would say: "Damn, this Keyes kid is sweeeeeet."

But Keyes will probably not like the paragraphs written above. Too much attention paid to his speaking skills, he says--as if he's some kind of entertainer. Satchmo or somebody. This is the yin and yang of Keyes's personality. For in the next breath he's pronouncing himself the debating king of presidential politics. In fact, as the L.A. Times poll suggests, his oratorical skills are actually helping him politically. Of likely caucusgoers who have watched the debates, 26 percent--a plurality--said Keyes struck them as "the most knowledgeable."

So, on the one hand he's got no use for people who come to hear him speak so they can feel good inside but then won't go the next step. And on the other hand, he'll tell you why his rivals treat him "very carefully" and are afraid to engage him in verbal combat. "I think in the context of what we're doing, it's for the same reason that if you were a boxer you treated Muhammad Ali with respect in his heyday."

Keyes is a complicated man, a complicated man.

He was raised Roman Catholic, the youngest of five children whose parents were admirers of John F. Kennedy. But at Cornell University, his conservative views began to take root. He received death threats for speaking out against fellow black students for their gun-wielding takeover of a campus building in 1969. Keyes considered their actions anti-American.

He left Cornell and ended up at Harvard, where he earned his undergraduate degree and later a doctorate. He became a diplomat, doing a stint as U.S. vice consul in Bombay, where he met his wife, Jocelyn Marcel.

He would go on to serve as ambassador to the United Nations Economic and Social Council and then as an assistant secretary of state during the Reagan administration. He went on to run twice, unsuccessfully, for the Senate from Maryland--coming under fire in 1992 for paying himself a $8,500 monthly salary from campaign funds. Keyes defended the practice--though unusual, it was legal--but abandoned it when he ran for president. In 1996 he carried his presidential campaign all the way to the GOP convention, even though he never gained any traction and never was taken seriously.

In July he gave up his syndicated radio talk show--"America's Wake Up Call"--to take another crack at the presidency. According to his campaign manager, Dan Godzich, he had saved up enough money from lectures, his writings and his radio show to assure his wife that the mortgage would be taken care of. He also received a decent advance, Godzich said, unsure of exactly how much it was, for a book he is working on. A series of Socratic dialogues on "life, liberty and lost luggage." Whatever.

"Right now," Keyes says in an interview, "I'm basically holding things together on occasional speeches I'm able to give. So it's a little bit touch-and-go, but we're surviving so far."

Some have wondered: Why does Keyes continue to run when polls suggest he is unable to climb out of single digits nationally? Are his campaigns really just marketing tools to boost his speaking fees and generate other outside income?

Godzich says Keyes receives from $3,500 to $10,000 for his speeches, and does six to eight a year. Other reports, however, have said Keyes received as much as $15,000 per speech--double and triple what he had been hauling--following his 1996 campaign.

Keyes says: "It works both ways. For a lot of the speaking I do, I don't take fees, the ones that are kind of related to the fundamental cause I believe in." Also, he adds, "a lot of the stands I take cut me off from the speaking circuit that's funded by big business."

So, why does he keep running? Surely he doesn't expect to be elected president, realistically, does he?

"This is not some kind of stupid horse race where we're trying to pick the winner," Keyes says. "The voters are supposed to determine the winner, not pick the winner. And there's a big difference there. We're not running in some sort of race to see who finishes first. We ought to be involved in a deliberative discussion that results in a choice that is going to be good for America. And if you believe that you offer that choice, and you're the best choice the country can make, I think you have an obligation to stand forward, regardless of what you think your chances are--because people can't make a choice they're not given."

There is another issue that Keyes is even more passionate about, and that is his view that the income tax should be abolished. He calls it a "slave tax."

"Under the income tax we give to the government a preemptive claim to a certain percentage of our income," he explains slowly. "In principle, therefore, the government controls all the money made in this country. What do we call it when you work and someone else controls 100 percent of the fruit of your labor? We call it slavery. Therefore, I am not talking in metaphors here."

As the only African American running for president this time, Keyes has claimed he has been excluded from media coverage because he doesn't "fit their stereotype." But could it also be the other way around, that Alan Keyes is able to say things that others wouldn't be able to get away with because he is black?

In one debate, he referred to Bush as "Massa Bush" to make a point about the unsuitability of the Texas governor's tax-cut plan. As he explained later, "This is all a discussion between the masters of how well or ill they're going to treat the slaves."

"I get upset when people misuse the slave metaphor and our slave history," says Roger Wilkins, a history professor at George Mason University. "It's almost profane." In fact, Wilkins adds, "there are very few people who have run for president in my lifetime with a slimmer credential for doing so. Who is this guy?"

He's a complicated man, a complicated man.

CAPTION: "People can't make a choice they're not given," Alan Keyes says of his campaign.

CAPTION: Alan Keyes, embracing his challenge as a GOP presidential candidate in Iowa.