Christian Coalition out to call presidential tune

RUPERT CORNWELL

Washington

"We are not Republicans or Democrats, but followers of a humble carpenter from Galilee." To this rallying cry did God's political army assemble here yesterday. The words belonged to Ralph Reed, director of the Christian Coalition - and the forces who march to them could determine the outcome of next year's US presidential election.

The assertion of neutrality is not strictly true, of course. The Coalition is the spearhead of America's religious right. Its founder, Pat Robertson, sought the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, while the 43 million "non-partisan voters' guides" it distributed via churches and parish mailing lists last year were a prime reason for the Republicans' 1994 sweep of Congress.

Its anti-government and back-to-basics agenda of "family values" drives the party's social policies. The promotional stands outside the "Road to Victory 1995" conference at the Washington Hilton yesterday featured such pro-Republican stalwarts as the National Rifle Association, the Right to Life anti-abortion group and the conservative Heritage Foundation think- tank. And just to dispel any lingering doubts about the Coalition's influence, seven of the nine declared Republican candidates for the 1996 nomination were there in person to seek its favours.

Yesterday those to pay tribute to the Almighty included the nervy front- runner Bob Dole and his closest challenger, Senator Phil Gramm. "There's only one person who's ever lived I would trust to impose values on America," declared Mr Gramm in a sample of the oratory which will dominate proceedings, "and when he comes back he won't need government to impose his values." The applause was thunderous.

Today, however, promises the real fireworks, in the person of Alan Keyes, the lone black candidate whose campaign consists of spellbinding oratory and a fanatical opposition to abortion, and the conservative commentator Pat Buchanan, whose "America first" fundamentalism commands the hearts - if not the heads - of so many Republicans. Mr Buchanan has won the honour of giving tonight's keynote address. He threatens to steal the show as comprehensively as he stole Ross Perot's conference in Dallas four weeks ago.

No less revealing are the two candidates who will not be addressing the conference: Governor Pete Wilson of California, whose plea of urgent political duties back home may have something to do with his tolerance of gays and abortion, and Senator Arlen Specter, so strong an advocate of a woman's right to choose that he was not invited in the first place.

Both perhaps may prove wise to have stayed away. For one thing Mr Reed, whose choirboy looks conceal a powerbroker's mind, has no desire to tip his hand at this early stage. "The question is not who we endorse, but who endorses our agenda," he said in his opening address.

Messrs Buchanan, Dole and Gramm, all of whom have recruited Coalition activists to help run their campaigns, are perhaps best placed to claim the movement's following. But Mr Reed's immediate priority is to his agenda, laid out in the Coalition's "Contract with the American Family," making its way through Congress as part of the other and more famous ''Contract with America'' spearheaded by the House Speaker, Newt Gingrich.

And for all the clout of the "30 to 40 million grassroots pro-family evangelicals and Roman Catholics" whom Mr Reed claimed yesterday to speak for, their support may be a mixed blessing. In the primaries, their votes could be decisive; later on, when Bill Clinton is the opponent, it may be otherwise.

Already the President is wrapping around himself the mantle of family values. The Democrats will then use the more contentious parts of the religious right's programme to portray the Republicans as prisoners of a fanatical fringe.

But the Coalition is here to stay. "We will ride on the back of the bus no longer," warned Mr Reed. He plans to lift its membership from 1.6 million to 2 million before the spring primary season. Not so long ago, a son of former President George Bush described coalition activists as "cockroaches issuing from the baseboards of the Bible Belt". Today the roaches are running the kitchen.

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