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The New Crusaders With Departure Of Ralph Reed From Christian Coalition Helm, The Conservative Beacon Is Counting On New Leaders Don Hodel And Randy Tate To Continue Reed’s Tireless Mission For The Right.

The Christian Coalition has $27 million to burn, nearly 400,000 dues-paying members and one of the most potent mailing lists in politics. What it doesn’t have any longer is Ralph Reed.

The baby-faced spokesman for right-wing activism is now a secular political consultant, leaving 900 conservatives gathered Friday for the coalition’s “Road to Victory” conference wondering one thing: What now?

“We’ve been playing with that question ourselves,” Arne Owens, spokesman for the Christian Coalition, said with a nervous half-chuckle. “We hope the answer is that we’re standing on Ralph’s shoulders and taking the coalition to the next level.”

Reed, credited with building television evangelist Pat Robertson’s band of loyalists into a political force, was being honored at a Friday night dinner. But the agenda Saturday, featuring a half-dozen Republican presidential hopefuls and conservative leaders of all stripes, belongs to the coalition’s new leadership.

Don Hodel, who held two Cabinet posts under President Reagan, was named coalition president by Robertson in June. Randy Tate, a one-term Republican congressman defeated in 1996, is executive director.

The pair will share communications duties, though neither has shown Reed’s media flair. Tate, 31, is the lobbyist, but ethics laws forbid him from lobbying his former congressional colleagues until January. Hodel, 62, a longtime businessman, says he will manage the shop.

Nobody expects Hodel and Tate to tinker with a successful recipe. Reed, who will remain on the board of directors, said, “My sense is the direction of the organization is not going to change in any significant way.”

Three months into the job, the new team has barely made a mark. It was almost invisible in Washington until Hodel announced a fall legislative agenda.

Reflecting the new team’s goals to broaden its mission beyond abortion and institutionalize Reed’s success, the package denounces religious persecution, seeks tax cuts for families and embraces inner-city economic initiatives.

Tate plans to blitz talk radio, a critical conservative conduit. Under Reed, the coalition fed talk radio hosts a steady stream of faxes, but he didn’t appear on many shows himself.

“Ralph simply didn’t have the time,” Hodel said. “We are two people doing his one-man’s job.”

At times, two men may not seem enough.

The Federal Elections Commission is investigating whether the coalition made illegal corporate contributions to Republican candidates through its voter guides, get-out-the-vote efforts and other activities. The Internal Revenue Service is studying whether the group’s actions run against its tax-exempt status.

The coalition also is under investigation by the U.S. attorney in Norfolk, Va. At issue are alleged irregularities in contracts for printing, mailing and fund raising by an outside contractor. U.S. postal authorities also are investigating the group’s mailing practices.

Internally, the organization’s outreach efforts have failed to attract large numbers of minorities or Catholics. A philosophical split between moral and economic conservatism threatens to widen with the success of an upstart competitor, the Washington-based Family Research Council.

One-third of white evangelicals voted for President Clinton. Still, this is no time to underestimate the Christian Coalition.

“They’re still the force to be reckoned with,” said Oliver North, the Virginia-based talk radio host and former GOP Senate candidate. The turnout in Atlanta “discredits the lies that the Christian Coalition is falling part,” he said.

Even the coalition’s critics refuse to believe Hodel and Tate will miss a step.

“The coalition is always walking a tightrope: Keep the troops fired up without being so extreme that you look like a bunch of nuts,” said Joseph Conn, spokesman for Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “I think … Hodel and Tate can do both.”

The two have shown a knack for political nuance: While their public statements steer clear of hot-button language that might turn off moderates, their fund-raising letters denounce the “homosexual rights bill,” condemn “pornograpic, blasphemous material” sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts and warn of “leftist radicals … dancing in the streets.”

“Ralph Reed built them up,” Conn said. “They have a place at the table in Congress and the Republican Party. The question is whether they can keep a place at the table.”