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Less Extreme Christian Coalition Risks Losing Loyalists At The Polls Oratory Has Been Toned Down And Some Moderates Supported

Richard L. Berke New York Times

Looking out with satisfaction at an audience of thousands of churchgoing, politically energized members of the Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, the group’s executive director, declared, “We have gained what we have always sought - a place at the table.”

In fact, the coalition, which ended its two-day conference here Saturday, has reached a pinnacle of power in Republican politics, largely through Reed’s carefully constructed two-pronged strategy. The group has broadened its base and won wide-spread backing from Republicans in Congress by toning down its oratory in recent years, emphasizing economic issues as much as social ones and even backing moderate Republican candidates.

At the same time, the coalition has continued to stir up the faithful in the grass roots with unfettered attacks on President Clinton, homosexuals and abortion rights leaders, through mailed fund-raising appeals.

Now, as the coalition, with 1.7 million members, seeks to maintain and expand its political pull, its challenge is whether it can satisfy both constituencies and position itself as a mainstream organization without turning off the loyalists it is counting on to turn out at the polls.

“The Christian right finds itself torn between the pragmatism of its leaders and the purism of its followers,” Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor at Mary Washington College, and Clyde Wilcox, a professor of government at Georgetown University, write in a book due out this fall on religious conservatives. “Movement leaders may find it difficult to convince the movement’s activist core to volunteer on behalf of moderate Republicans year after year, especially if they receive no more policy payoffs than were offered by Reagan.

“Conversely,” the authors continued, “if the movement resorts to the purist strategies of nominating candidates who are closely associated with or members of the Christian right, it is almost certain to lose.”

The struggle within the Christian Coalition was evident at the group’s annual convention. Reed and Pat Robertson, who founded the organization after his failed bid for the Republican presidential nomination in 1988, stayed clear of the brand of militant oratory that had offended many of the more moderate Republicans at the party’s 1992 convention in Houston.

As part of that effort to make the organization more palatable to all Republicans, Robertson - who has a well-documented history of saying things that his opponents deride as extremist - has ceded the public stage largely to the polished Reed, who espouses more mainstream views.

One admirer of Reed’s political skills is Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Republican who told the convention, “He could sell an NRA membership to Bill Clinton - that’s how good he is.”

Like the group’s leaders, two Republican presidential candidates who appeared at the convention Saturday were also tame in their speeches. Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana presented himself as having “Cal Ripken-like values” and made a plea “to challenge the morality of gambling.”

And former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee took a mild swipe at a competitor for the nomination, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who once said he was running for president, not preacher. Alexander did not cite the senator by name, but said, “At this time in our history, I’m not so sure that it wouldn’t help if our president of the United States, the first president of the next century, were not a little bit of a preacher.”

But any attempt by the coalition to keep contentious social issues from creeping into the program was shattered by other speakers who did not hesitate to charge up the audience with issues like abortion.

Phyllis Schlafly, a longtime leader of abortion opponents, told the group Saturday morning it should demand that a presidential or vice presidential candidate preserve the Republican Party’s platform supporting a constitutional amendment banning abortion. Her comments drew an ovation, even though the coalition backed many Republicans in last year’s congressional races who did not support an outright prohibition on abortion.

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