Religious right not enthusiastic about Bush


HOUSTON -- Vice President Dan Quayle made his convention debut at a "God and Country" rally yesterday, extolling traditional values, the power of prayer and a newly adopted platform so socially conservative that one Christian leader said it could have been written by the religious right.

For this hard-core family values crowd, Mr. Quayle and the platform are only the opening act. All week, the Bush team will be doing its best to court religious conservatives, a voting bloc crucial to its success in November, but one that is not unanimous this year in its support for President Bush.

Even with such a right-leaning manifesto as the GOP platform, some within the evangelical community are not convinced Mr. Bush is their candidate this time around, citing a perceived "softening" on the administration's gay and lesbian rights policies.

"He's leaving tremors in a community he should have taken care to secure," said Tim Crater, a spokesman for the National Association of Evangelicals, a major Christian organization that represents 50,000 churches throughout the nation.

But some of the movement's other leading figures, such as TV evangelist and former presidential hopeful Pat Robertson and Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, are downplaying any division in their ranks. They believe their members need to put their differences with the president aside and rally behind him to prevent Democrat Bill Clinton from nabbing the job away.

"When they realize the stark contrast between the two, they're going to vote for George Bush," Mr. Robertson, who is to address the convention tomorrow night, told reporters here earlier this week.

Said Mr. Reed, "Are we happy with everything George Bush has done? No. But the issue is, at the end of the day, who is ultimately going to do more to strengthen the family -- George Bush or Bill Clinton? To us, the answer is easy."

The religious right, whose share of the electorate has always been hard to measure but has been estimated at up to 25 percent, came out in force for Mr. Bush in 1988, awarding him between 80 percent and 90 percent of their vote.

Recent polls, however, show the president and Mr. Clinton in a dead heat among religious conservatives.

The Christian Coalition, founded by Mr. Robertson two years ago to put a decidedly Christian stamp on the Republican party, is vigorously trying to mobilize Bush support across the country. In fact, it filled a hotel ballroom to capacity at yesterday's rally.

But the evangelical association's Mr. Crater said that while a number of leaders on the religious right will probably vote for Mr. Bush, they "will not be out there stoking the fires as they were before."

Their displeasure with Mr. Bush stems, in part, from remarks the president made in a Barbara Walters interview suggesting he would not impose a "litmus" test to bar gays from his Cabinet and his invitation to gay leaders to bill signing ceremonies at the White House. To a number of Christian leaders, the gay rights issue is more potent than the abortion issue.

And while much of the community has been comforted by Mr. Bush's anti-abortion position, last week's comments by Barbara Bush, in which she said issues of personal choice such as abortion and gay rights should be left out of the GOP platform, raised their level of angst.

"If abortion and homosexual issues do not belong in the Republican party platform, then the religious right does not belong in the Republican party," Martin Mawyer, president of the Christian Action Network, said last week.

Charles Black, a senior adviser to the Bush campaign, noted the "huge gap" between Mr. Bush and Mr. Clinton on such issues as abortion and gay rights. Voters concerned with such issues, Mr. Black said, should have no trouble deciding between the two candidates.

Mr. Bush must capture a clear majority of this vote if he is to hold on to the solid base he once had in the South, where much of the evangelical vote is concentrated. But, in wooing religious conservatives, he needs to walk a fine line and avoid alienating moderate Republicans, especially pro-choice women.

Still, Ed Rollins, the GOP strategist who managed Ronald Reagan's re-election campaign and had signed on to Ross Perot's aborted presidential bid this year, called the religious right "probably the most solid group the campaign has." If Mr. Bush shows any signs of turning his back on them, he said, "he would be really hard-pressed to put together any kind of numbers" and win on Election Day.

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