The prime-time speakers at the Republican National Convention did not include Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell or anyone else instantly identifiable with the Christian right.

At conventions past, the religious movement's leaders would have been upset by such a slight, but not this year. That's because the event's most important speaker, President Bush, is a Christian conservative.

The sophisticated, more politically mature movement realizes it has never had a better friend in the Oval Office than Bush and is eager to get him reelected, even if it means taking a lower convention profile to ensure the attention of moderate and swing voters. The objective is to win, not to put on a show of influence.

"I think it's great that the president has people with different values and beliefs supporting him," said Christian Coalition President Roberta Combs, referring to the likes of New York Gov. George E. Pataki, former New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, all of whom, to some degree, support gay rights and legalized abortion.

"That shows diversity. That doesn't bother me at all because at the end of the day, we have the president," Combs said.

It's not unusual for a political party to suppress its more extreme views and constituencies at its convention in an effort to appear more moderate. That's what happened at the Democratic convention in Boston in July; strident antiwar voices were hardly heard.

But scholars of the Christian right say the movement's willingness to stay backstage is unprecedented.

The dynamic is in contrast to the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, where leaders of a newly organized and invigorated Christian conservative movement didn't know whether Bush's father, President George H.W. Bush, fully shared their beliefs and values.

As if to prove a point, the elder Bush allowed such speakers as television evangelist Robertson and Catholic conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan to dominate prime time, with Buchanan declaring a "cultural war" for the soul of America.

The rhetoric prompted one commentator to quip that the Buchanan speech was better in its original German.

"That convention was a drag on George H.W. Bush and the campaign," said Mark Rozell, professor of public policy at George Mason University and the author of several books on religion and politics.

"Religious conservatives learned their lesson from 1992. They're smart enough now to know that the payoff comes later if President Bush wins. In other words, by playing along, they'll get much more in the long run."

While Christian conservatives never saw the elder, religiously reserved Bush as one of their own, this president is seen as a true believer, both in words and deeds.

"He has proven himself," said the Rev. Lou Sheldon, founder of the Washington-based Traditional Values Coalition. "He supports a constitutional amendment [banning gay marriage]. He signed a law banning partial-birth abortion. He supports abstinence education. He lowered taxes. He's our friend."

For that reason, Sheldon supports the effort "to reach for that narrow percentage of people who are undecided."

According to an August poll by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, roughly seven in 10 registered voters say it's important that a president have strong religious beliefs, and a majority are comfortable with the way Bush has mentioned his faith.

As a group, evangelicals are more than comfortable. They are enthusiastic.

"It's not an easy thing to do, for anyone, myself included, to express your faith when you could be ridiculed for it," said Jason Dougherty, 29, of Philadelphia, after a service Sunday at Trinity Baptist Church here. "So I admire him, as the leader of the free world, for being so outwardly open about his own faith and for being such a committed Christian."

Dougherty said there was virtually nothing that could happen at this convention to persuade him to vote for John F. Kerry, the Democratic nominee. In that view, he is like many religious conservatives, giving the GOP the freedom to reach out to moderates.

"Religious conservatives are more strongly cemented to the Republican Party this year than in past elections," said John C. Green, director of the Ray C. Bliss Institute of Applied Politics at the University of Akron. "While Republicans need to pay attention to them, they don't need to pay quite so much attention."

There is some risk to that strategy. Green said that if Republicans can't fire up their most religious voters, those voters "might stay home" in November.

Republican Catholic delegates appeared motivated Sunday night at the Church of Our Saviour Roman Catholic Church, about a mile from the convention site, where the sweet aroma of incense filled the air. Some worshipers wore "Bush-Cheney" buttons. A reception for delegates followed the Mass.

No political endorsements were made, but the church bulletin included a section on "your role as a Catholic voter." It said, "Some things always are wrong, and no one may vote in favor of them, directly or indirectly." The "five non-negotiable issues" are "abortion, euthanasia, embryonic-stem-cell research, human cloning and homosexual 'marriage.' "

When asked at the reception which political party and presidential candidate best defended those issues, the Rev. George Rutler, the church's pastor and a self-described lifelong Republican, smiled wryly.

"It's very clear," he said.

Jason Dougherty and other evangelicals admire President Bush "for being such a committed Christian."