The Bells, home schoolers from Centreville, are looking for signs of what Les Bell calls a "strong moral fiber" in politics. Greg Mays wants the next governor to care about rugged Southwest Virginia. And Front Royal resident Thomas Sayre likes the "good, conservative values" of his statewide favorite.

From different corners of Virginia, under the umbrella of the Christian Coalition, hundreds of voters spent a sunny Saturday inside a Washington hotel yesterday, determined to play a significant role in next month's legislative elections and the 2001 governor's race.

"This is encouraging," said Karen Bell, 44, who with her husband, Les, 45, has taught three children at their Fairfax County home. "You want to hear people, learn where they stand, and we can do that here."

Republican presidential candidates had the star power at the coalition's annual Road to Victory conference this weekend, but Virginia Lt. Gov. John H. Hager and state Attorney General Mark L. Earley basked in the excitement of dozens of activists who will help settle the already intense struggle for the party's gubernatorial nomination.

Coalition founder Pat Robertson, a religious broadcaster based in Chesapeake, Va., has been generous to both Earley and Hager with major cash contributions in the past, and the two politicians said the group's 50,000 member households in Virginia could be decisive.

In the Nov. 2 elections for every seat in the General Assembly, "they're crucial," said Tim Phillips, an Atlanta-based consultant who is helping more than a dozen Republican candidates across the state.

"They make or break elections," Phillips said. "They're the basis upon which you get to 50 percent."

For example, Les Bell, a systems engineering consultant, said he will be doing unglamorous volunteer work for Del. Roger J. McClure (R-Fairfax) in the days ahead, just as he did two years ago.

"They're concerned, and they tell their neighbors," said Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who did not attend the conference but has relied on coalition members in the past.

"They give small checks--$10, $15--but they give a lot of them," Marshall said.

William Martin, a Rice University professor and authority on the religious right, said that although the Christian Coalition may have slipped in membership and income in recent years, the issues it cares about--"abortion, promiscuity, destabilized families and school violence"--continue to resonate with many voters outside its immediate circle.

"You don't have to be a dedicated conservative to be concerned about those things," Martin said.

Coalition critics such as Barry Lynn, of McLean, said Hager, Earley and other conservatives are effectively forced to pay homage to Robertson and his group, especially in low-turnout races that decide statewide nominations.

"In primaries, he's awfully important," Lynn said yesterday as he prowled the conference. "With the possible exception of Northern Virginia, Robertson is the single most important person to court if you're a Republican."

Several people at the conference said moral issues matter most to them, along with the individual records of Hager, Earley and other candidates.

Greg Mays, an ophthalmologist from Covington, Va., said he liked Hager for governor because "once he got elected, he's the only one who will remember Southwest."

Since the 1997 statewide elections, Mays has seen Hager--who has a part-time job--five or six times in his corner of Virginia, and Earley, a full-time attorney general, only once.

Thomas Sayre rushed up to Earley to tell him he still had the attorney general's bumper sticker on his car. "I hope you run for governor!" Sayre said.

Gary A. Marx, 23, the executive director of the coalition's Virginia chapter, said that while the state group toils in Robertson's shadow, it still can mobilize troops in hotly contested elections. "People kind of lay low, but they really turn out for those races that show contrasting values," Marx said.

In Virginia's primary election season, the coalition mailed 50,000 candidate scorecards and will send out the same number in time for November's general election. On Oct. 31, the Sunday two days before the general election, 250,000 coalition voter guides will be distributed across the state.

Earley, whose ties to the coalition date to his days as the state senator for Chesapeake, played down the immediate importance of the group's role in the governor's race. "Today, in my mind, is not about 2001," Earley said.

Similarly, Hager said there was nothing surprising about his special trip across the Potomac River yesterday. "I don't select a constituency or a faction to work with or visit," Hager said. "This is an important constituency. How important is up to the history books."