Dole's moderate candidacy miffs GOP's conservative Christians Big enough to be courted, small enough to be ignored; CAMPAIGN 1996; REPUBLICAN CONVENTION


SAN DIEGO -- After religious conservatives gave Bob Dole decisive wins in Republican primaries earlier this year in the South, the executive director of the Christian Coalition was almost giddy.

They had finally gotten "inside the castle" of the Republican Party, instead of just throwing rocks from the outside, said Ralph Reed Jr.

Judging from the GOP convention, they have not gotten much further than the basement.

Although religious conservatives wrote tough party platform stands on abortion, affirmative action and immigration, they are feeling dismissed and disrespected by party leaders determined this week to showcase moderates and submerge conflicts.

Religious activists freely voice the anxiety of being part of a group large enough to be courted but small enough to be ignored, whenever convenient.

"We have given much to the party in votes and sweat equity. Now, we definitely have a seat at the table," said Bill Price, president of the Texans United for Life. "But there are a lot of people who are not glad that we're there."

Religious conservatives have every right to feel that way, said Larry Sabato, a University of Virginia political scientist. "The position of Christian conservatives in the Republican Party is the same as for African-Americans in the Democratic Party. Their vote is taken for granted, and so they are taken for granted."

Some religious conservatives were upset earlier this week when both Dole and running mate Jack Kemp said they had not read the party platform and would not be bound by it.

They interpreted the statements as indications Dole and Kemp were distancing themselves from their hard-won platform planks.

Chris Sorensen, a 40-year-old anti-abortion activist from Washington state, said Dole's comments sent this message: "Senator Dole knows what the platform says. I think he wants to play us down for the media to hide the divisions."

Religious activists are sensitive to rejection. During the past 20 years, they have split or transformed mainstream churches, adopting a more emotional worship style.

Christian Coalition members now dominate the GOP caucuses of at least 18 states and have heavy influence in 13 states, according to independent monitors.

As many as 199 GOP members of Congress vote at least 86 percent of the time for issues supported by the coalition, according to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a national group opposed to coalition policies.

But this is a group that had to fight its way into the GOP and still feels insecure, said John Green, director of the Bliss Institute for Applied Politics at the University of Akron in Ohio.

"When you fight, sometimes it's hard to turn off that fighting instinct," he said. "A lot of the leaders have to try to sell pragmatism to the purists."

That may be more difficult for people like Price, who feels religious conservatives were unfairly tarnished in the abortion platform fight.

The moderates picked the fight by vowing to remove something conservatives had put in the platform 20 years ago.

"For weeks, they were saying, 'We're going to haul your flag down from the flag pole.' What we were supposed to do? Roll over?"

The coalition, under investigation by the Federal Election Commission for funneling money into Republican campaigns, claims that its members make up 25 percent of the convention delegates.

Pub Date: 8/14/96

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