GOP candidates seek backing of Christian voters; Coalition leader Robertson calls Bush 'worthy ' of support; Six hopefuls set to speak; Buchanan, McCain turn down invitations

THE BALTIMORE SUN

WASHINGTON -- Led by Gov. George W. Bush, a parade of Republican presidential candidates appeared before thousands of Christian Coalition members yesterday to appeal for support from religious conservatives.

Bush highlighted his anti-abortion views, an issue he has largely played down in his presidential campaign.

The Texas governor called for legal protections for "every child, born and unborn," drawing cheers and applause from a standing-room audience of 3,500.

Bush supports a measure, passed this week by the Republican-controlled House, that would make it a federal crime to harm a fetus during a violent attack on a pregnant woman, a Bush spokeswoman said last night.

Abortion rights advocates complain that the measure is another effort to chip away at the rights granted by the Supreme Court's Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973.

Six of the eight Republicans running for president were to address the Christian Coalition conference. Besides Bush, they were Gary Bauer, Elizabeth Hanford Dole, publisher Steve Forbes, Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch and Alan L. Keyes.

Notably missing from the list was Patrick J. Buchanan, who had been scheduled to speak today but withdrew, claiming an unspecified schedule conflict.

The only other who declined to attend was Arizona Sen. John McCain.

Buchanan is expected to quit the Republican field this month and pursue the Reform Party's presidential nomination.

Christian Coalition President Pat Robertson, in a speech kicking off the two-day gathering, expressed hope that Buchanan would remain in the Republican Party and keep the 2000 election from becoming a three-way contest, which could peel conservative votes away from the Republican ticket and help elect a Democrat.

Later, however, Robertson predicted that Buchanan would lose the support of Christian Coalition members if he quit the Republican Party because the Reform Party is "180 degrees out in terms of social issues that Pat Buchanan claimed to espouse so vociferously."

Many Reform Party members believe the government should not intrude into private matters such as abortion.

"I can't see him taking many Christian conservatives with him. Not to the Reform Party," said Robertson, the coalition's founder, who made his appearance before the delegates to the thumping beat of the theme from "Rocky" to proclaim, "We are back."

Robertson's organization has suffered a series of legal and political setbacks and continues to experience financial difficulties.

The Christian Coalition represents only a small portion of the nation's white Protestant evangelicals, who cast more than one of every five votes in the 1996 presidential election. Still, the group remains the most visible symbol of the central role that the Christian right plays in Republican politics.

Bush has retained Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition's former director, as an adviser.

Robertson, who has made no secret of his desire to back a winner in 2000, is expected to endorse Bush at some point. Robertson told reporters yesterday that the Texas governor would be "worthy of the support of the coalition, were he the nominee."

An indication of the importance Bush places on the support of Christian conservatives was his decision to come here solely for the Christian Coalition event. He flew back to Texas immediately afterward.

Bush's remarks consisted largely of the stump speech he has been delivering around the country for months. His strategists want to avoid the appearance of pandering to special-interest groups, while at the same time demonstrating the breadth of his message.

A measure of the success of that strategy could be seen in the audience reaction yesterday.

Bush drew his biggest applause not from the brief passage he added for the benefit of the religious conservatives but from an attack on deadbeat dads that is part of his standard speech.

"He's going to unite the entire party," predicted Reed, who said Bush's high poll ratings in the Republican race prove that he enjoys considerable support from social conservatives.

Some Republicans have criticized Bush's efforts to play down his opposition to abortion, calling it evidence of a lack of commitment to social conservatism.

In his remarks, Bush managed to highlight his opposition to abortion rights -- a matter of central importance to social conservatives -- without uttering the word "abortion."

"In our compassion, we should set this goal: Every child, born and unborn, must be protected by law and welcomed to life," he said.

Bush boasted of his success in securing passage of a Texas law that requires parental notification before a girl under 18 receives an abortion.

"When a child is in crisis, parents should have a role and a voice. They should be the first to help, not the last to know," said Bush, who was introduced by Jay A. Sekulow, a longtime Robertson associate and a Bush supporter.

Bush, who appeared more forceful than usual in appearances before large audiences, received generous applause. In interviews, however, some in the crowd said they would support Bush, if he becomes the nominee, more out of pragmatism than enthusiasm for his candidacy.

"He hasn't come out strongly enough on the things that Christians believe in," said Roger McColly of Upper Sandusky, Ohio, citing abortion and freedom of religion as two examples.

But McColly, the owner of a Domino's pizza franchise, said he would vote for Bush because Buchanan has no chance of being elected.

Robertson noted that McCain's campaign finance reform proposal is regarded as a threat to groups such as the Christian Coalition, because it would limit their ability to run television ads in political campaigns.

In media interviews during the day, Robertson also had tart words for another Republican hopeful. He dismissed social conservative Bauer's campaign as "a lost cause" because it is attracting only 1 percent or 2 percent support in the polls.

And he said Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura was "off his rocker" for telling Playboy magazine that organized religion is "a sham and a crutch for weak-minded people."

Robertson, who predicted that religious conservatives will provide the margin of victory for Republicans in key states next year, criticized Vice President Al Gore for having called Bill Clinton one of the greatest presidents of the 20th century.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I don't know about you, but I am filled with Clinton fatigue," the evangelist said, to loud applause from his followers.

He was equally critical of the Republican Congress, calling its leaders weak and motivated more by fear of low poll numbers than by love of country.

"It is better to lose fighting a noble cause than to live in peace as a coward," he declared.

At the same time, he denounced Congress for cutting the Clinton administration's foreign aid budget by several billion dollars.

He said the United States needs to spend far more to alleviate hunger and disease around the world and called for forgiveness of the debt owed by Third World nations, a position also advocated recently by Clinton.

Pub Date: 10/02/99

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