When Keith Russel Finch talks, patriots listen.

Wearing his "lucky" shoes, clip-on tie, and his little brother's bear claw, Finch, a 16-year-old high school junior from Blacksburg, Va., talked his way to the championship of the American Legion's 46th annual National High School Oratorical contest.

For his poise, high-flown phrases and forceful style on the stage of Mitscher Hall at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis yesterday, Finch was awarded a $16,000 scholarship and a taste of the fame that enveloped legendary American orators such as Patrick Henry and Daniel Webster.

Though his favorite topic is the economy, it was the young orator's rhetoric in defense of the U.S. Constitution that brought praise from the crowd of about 200 high school debaters, speech coaches and inspired Legionnaires, who pumped his hand, demanded his autograph and entreated him to pose for snapshots with their wives.

Finch, who also plays the French horn and lettered in wrestling, attributed his triumph over 30,000 other high school speech-makers to the year before when he was knocked out of the contest in a preliminary round, as well as improved techniques he developed with the help of his speech coach: his mother.

"This year I tried to talk louder," he said.

Proud as they were, Keith's parents Curt and Karen Finch were not above wondering what life would be like with a 16-year-old son now acclaimed for his mouth.

"My mother used to say she could never win an argument with me or my sister because we were both debaters," Karen Finch said. "I'm starting to see what she meant."

For nearly half a century, the Legion has sponsored an oratory contest to teach young citizens "Americanism."

Year after year, the topic is the U.S. Constitution. Legionnaires, many of whom fought in defense of the ideals and principles embodied in the Constitution, have not tired of hearing hundreds of thousands of students discourse on the subject.

"I learn something every year," said Raymond Callegary, a Baltimore lawyer and the oratorical chairman, attending his 13th contest.

In recent years, increasing numbers of high school orators have competed in the contest. "Kids are getting more conservative, they're more willing to do these things," said Mary Ellen Eller, who helped coach orators from Rising Sun, Md.

The preliminary rounds begin in January at American Legion posts across the country. From local competition, winners progress to county, district, regional and sectional speak-offs.

The rules are simple. Contestants are required to deliver from memory an eight to 10 minute written address of their own writing, while standing unsheltered on a podium, and speaking without a microphone. They also must talk off the cuff for three to five minutes on an article or amendment of the Constitution selected by the Legion.

Speakers who stammer, choke or stray from the topic are quickly eliminated, and penalties of up to 10 points are imposed for orators who exceed the time limit. "At the lower levels," says Callegary, "you get kids drifting off."

Gradually, the field narrows until the "Final Four" square off. Five judges grade for voice, diction, freshness, logic and posture.

Speeches of the Final Four ranged from highly specific dates and facts to broad generalities on the nature of American life, addressing such themes as "The Constitution: guardian of our freedoms." Finch seemed to secure his victory on the strength of a strong performance during the extemporaneous segment where his rivals garbled an occasional word, or lost track of what it was they were trying to say about Section 3 of the 14th Amendment.

All was not lost, even for the losers. Mathew Baumgart, 16, from Des Moines, Wash., won a $14,000 scholarship for finishing second. Michele Horner from Fargo, N.D. got $10,000 toward her college tuition and Stephen Epstein from Needham, Mass. earned $8,000 which will go to either "Yale, Princeton or MIT."

As for the winner, still a junior, he doesn't know where he's headed, except that he'll be in big demand on the local public-speaking circuit with dates at churches, schools, and civic groups, where he will follow his mother's winning advice: "Tell them what you're going to tell them, then tell them, and then tell them what you told them."