All week there had been rumors that he might use his slot as speaker at the closing banquet of the National Religious Broadcasters on Wednesday to announce his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president.

Since last September, television evangelist Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, has let it be known that he is considering the race.

His opening line before an enthusiastic crowd of 3,000 conservative evangelicals gathered around the candle-lit dinner tables in the Washington Sheraton's ballroom only heightened the suspense.

"The challenge we face," he said, "is greater than any group of religious people have faced since the days of the Reformation or even back to the beginning of the church."

While he made no specific mention during the next 40 minutes of any political plans of his own, his remarks were a clarion call to conservative evangelicals to enter the political mainstream, where they could overturn the evils Robertson said were afflicting the nation.

The evils he cited were many: abortion, the elimination of prayer and Bible reading from public schools, the sexual revolution, the breakdown of the family, rising divorce rates, working mothers, absentee fathers, crime in the streets, sexual abuse of children, secularism and what he called the domination "of the entire political system" by "five old men in black robes who never got elected."

In addition to the Supreme Court, Robertson singled out the public schools as a focus of criticism. The educational level has "so fallen that our schools have become jungles" and centers of serious crime, he said, so widespread that "school is the most dangerous place to be . . . outside of the mother's womb, which is the most dangerous of all." In addition, he charged that schools have suffered "an inculcation of values totally contrary to the Judeo-Christian tradition." He cited a study of social studies textbooks for grades one to four, in which, he said, "the word 'marriage,' the word 'bride,' the word 'groom,' the word 'wedding' never appears one time in the textbooks being studied by 70 percent of our schoolchildren."

Neither do such texts make reference to any aspect of religion, he continued, concluding that "those who are in charge of our education system are so terrified by the evangelical experience that they expunge all religion from all the textbooks in the U.S.A."

Citing what he said were soaring rates of illiteracy among schoolchildren, Robertson said, "Someone has come along and decided they will impose on us a type of reading which is unnatural and wrong. It is based on the Pavlovian reflex instinct that the Russians did with their dogs, and it does not accord with God's way, if you will, of learning and speech."

He was equally critical of the so-called new math, with its emphasis on teaching children to reason out mathematical processes. He told a story of a teacher trained in the new math who, Robertson said, asked a pupil, " 'How much is 9 times 9?'

"A bright boy said, '81.' The man said 'Oh no, that's wrong,' " Robertson said. When another student answered " 'almost 76,' he said, 'That's right . . . . We're trying to develop your reasoning power.'

"They do that because they despise absolutes, and the multiplication tables stick in their throats because they don't believe in any kind of absolutes . . . . They're cultural moral relativists," Robertson said to a burst of applause.

Conservative evangelicals can turn this situation around, he said, because "we are seeing . . . . the greatest spiritual revival in the entire history of the world," a revival that is being translated into political power.

He recited the statistics: Between 1980 and 1984, "2 million more registered evangelical voters . . . and 6 million evangelicals switched party affiliation" so that there are now "between 20 million and 22 million evangelicals in the Republican Party."

What the figures really mean, he said, is that "the evangelicals can take over the political process."

The process already has begun, he said, recalling that in 1980, evangelicals and others came to Washington "and we fasted and we prayed and we said we must have revival in America lest we perish. And God Almighty heard and God Almighty answered our prayer. He sent a change of government, a change in attitude." It was "a great victory," the evangelist said, "but it isn't finished."

Without mentioning any names, Robertson assured his audience that there are leaders within evangelicalism who can do a better job of running the country than the present political establishment -- "men and women of character, of leadership and integrity and intelligence who are far better and who see things more clearly.

"The Bible says, 'When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice,' " he said, adding, "I believe we do have a date with destiny."

A scheduled debate on "The State of Israel in the Christian/Jewish Perspective" turned into more of a love feast instead.

The two debaters -- evangelist Jerry Falwell and Rabbi Joshua Haberman of the Washington Hebrew Congregation -- almost could have read each other's speeches.

As mainline Christian churches have become increasingly critical of Israeli foreign policy in recent years, Jews have welcomed evangelical support for the establishment of the state of Israel, which some conservative Christians interpret as fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Falwell went beyond theology to praise Israel's political value to America, saying that the region "is so vital that if there were no Israel, we would have to send our military there," he said.

Falwell mentioned one of the most sensitive points in Evangelical-Jewish dialogue, the efforts to convert Jews. He wasn't singling out Jews, he said: "I witness to everyone."

Haberman, just back from Israel, where he is about to take up permanent residence after he retires this spring from the Washington synagogue, brought fresh impressions from Jerusalem.

"We need peace," he said. "All over the world we need peace. And we need peace with the Arab world just as well."

He praised his hosts, suggesting that the Bible Belt from which many came was "America's safety belt" for religious freedom.

Haberman noted in passing that he had fled to this country as a youth from the Nazi Holocaust, and said "I feel safe only among people who respect the Bible.