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WASHINGTON -- The leading Republican presidential candidates fervently wooed members of the increasingly powerful religious right yesterday. But it was a noncandidate -- Newt Gingrich -- who drew the most enthusiastic reception.

Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, continuing his courting of conservative activists, was warmly received by members of the Christian Coalition at their annual meeting here. He welcomed their growing political clout and vowed to defend them against what he predicted would be a wave of persecution from Democrats in next year's campaign.

Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas was applauded repeatedly after he promised to make the coalition's legislative agenda "the law of the land" if he became president. Among the items on the list: abolishing the Education Department, restricting late-term abortions and allowing greater religious expression in public places.

But the loudest cheers were reserved for House Speaker Gingrich of Georgia, who brought the standing-room-only crowd of 4,000 to its feet time and again with a free-swinging assault on Democratic liberals, President Clinton and the news media.

Mr. Gingrich's brand of activist conservatism probably comes closer to that of the coalition and its 1.7 million members than does either Mr. Dole's or Mr. Gramm's, especially on social issues. And yesterday's roster of speakers was studded with Gingrich acolytes, including Reps. Tom DeLay of Texas, John R. Kasich of Ohio and Robert S. Walker of Pennsylvania.

Blunt warning

To loud applause, Mr. Gingrich delivered a blunt warning to the White House about this fall's legislative battles. If Mr. Clinton vetoes Republican plans to cut the federal budget deficit, reform welfare and restructure Medicare, "there ain't no point in his filing for re-election next year, because he ain't gonna represent this country," declared Mr. Gingrich, who has been coy about his presidential ambitions and has said he will decide by mid-December whether to enter the '96 contest.

At times, the House speaker seemed to slip into presidential candidate mode, as when he defended his outspoken advocacy of "family values" despite having been married twice.

"A number of the Republican candidates for president -- I'm noone, but I fit because I'm a national leader . . . who say they're pro-family are divorced," noted Mr. Gingrich, who, like Mr. Dole, Mr. Gramm and California Gov. Pete Wilson, has been married twice.

He contended that those who have suffered failed marriages are ideally suited to stress family values, "precisely because" they // know how hard it is to keep a marriage together.

One Republican presidential hopeful, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, has called into question the right of divorced candidates to speak about family issues.

Recent poll

Mr. Gingrich was not among the GOP candidates tested in a recent poll of Christian Coalition members, who listed Mr. Dole, Mr. Gramm and Patrick Buchanan as their top choices for the nomination. But Mr. Gingrich continues to upstage the announced candidates, as he did this summer at a meeting of the Republican National Committee.

He is also attracting attention from such opposition groups as the National Abortion Rights Action League, which sent 75 demonstrators to picket the hotel where the coalition is meeting. They carried signs bearing photographs of Mr. Gingrich and the Christian Coalition's executive director, Ralph Reed, and the slogan: "How far will these men go to take away your right to choose? As far as you let them."

Abortion has been central to the coalition's agenda, and Mr. Gramm tried to use it yesterday to bait Mr. Dole.

"There is a divine spark in every human life, and I will fight for that life," Mr. Gramm said, citing his own support for retaining a strong anti-abortion statement in the party platform. He urged the delegates to ask Mr. Dole why he hasn't signed a pledge to keep that language in the '96 platform.

But Mr. Dole, who was heckled by Gramm supporters, turned the challenge aside. "Don't look at pledges; look at the record," said the senator, who has an anti-abortion voting record.

Potent force

The Christian Coalition, the nation's largest conservative religious organization, grew out of the Rev. Pat Robertson's unsuccessful campaign for the 1988 Republican presidential nomination, and Mr. Robertson remains its president.

Religious conservatives are an increasingly potent political force exit polls in the 1994 elections found that they made up roughly one-fifth of the electorate -- and the coalition is mobilizing to win as many delegate seats as possible to next summer's Republican convention.

"We are here to send a message to this city, to the political establishment and to the media," Mr. Reed proclaimed in opening the three-day conference. "We will ride in the back of the bus no longer . . . and our issues will be spurned no longer by either political party."

While declaring that the coalition is "positioned to play a major role" in the '96 election, he sought to play down the group's ties to the Republican Party.

"We do not bear the name of Ronald Reagan or Bob Dole or Newt Gingrich. We bear the name which is above every name," Mr. Reed said.

Most are Republicans

But the internal poll of coalition members found that more tha two-thirds identify themselves as Republicans, and 95 percent want someone other than Mr. Clinton to be elected president next year.

Though officially neutral in the GOP race, the group sent signals, some subtle, some not, in putting together this year's convention. Mr. Buchanan was given the most prized speaking slot -- the keynote address at tonight's closing banquet. And, alone among yesterday's speakers, Mr. Gingrich was introduced Mr. Reed, who enjoys celebrity status among coalition members.

Sen. Arlen Specter, who has criticized religious conservatives in an attempt to win moderate support, was excluded altogether. The Pennsylvania senator issued a statement accusing Mr. Robertson and Mr. Reed of "trying to dictate the next president of the United States."

The only candidates not scheduled to appear at this weekend's convention -- Mr. Specter and Governor Wilson -- are the only abortion-rights supporters in the race, though Mr. Wilson was invited but said he could not attend.

Dole takes issue

Even as the religious conservatives celebrated the conservative takeover of Congress and their own influence, there was a defensive undertone to the proceedings. Mr. Dole took issue with news reports noting that the GOP candidates were courting the religious right.

"Well, maybe we are; what's wrong with that?" he asked, adding that the news media have "such a bias against this group."

Last year, the Anti-Defamation League of B'Nai B'Rith accused the Christian Coalition of religious intolerance, a charge the group staunchly denied. Among those addressing the delegates was Rabbi Daniel Lapin of Seattle, who defended his hosts against charges of anti-Semitism. And Mr. Reed, in his speech, insisted: "We are the best friends that the Jews and the state of Israel have ever had."

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